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Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program and its weapons ambitions

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Nuclear Monitor #791, 18 Sept 2014,

Author: Jim Green − Nuclear Monitor editor

On September 2, energy officials in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) announced plans to fast-track the development of nuclear power. Riyadh wants 16 reactors built by 2032, with the first online in 10 years or less.1,2,3 The timeline is improbable but, for the moment at least, Riyadh seems intent on pursuing a nuclear power program.

In December 2006 the six member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council – Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and Oman – announced the commissioning of a study on the development of nuclear power. In February 2007 the Council agreed with the IAEA to cooperate on a feasibility study for a regional nuclear power and desalination program.2

The Gulf Cooperation Council initiative stalled but in 2009 Saudi Arabia announced it was considering developing its own nuclear power program. In April 2010 King Abdullah issued a royal decree stating that "development of atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom's growing requirements for energy to generate electricity, produce desalinated water and reduce reliance on depleting hydrocarbon resources." In order to fulfil the decree, the King Abdullah City for Nuclear and Renewable Energy (KACARE) was established in Riyadh. In 2011, plans were announced for the construction of 16 power reactors.4,5,6

According to KACARE, the "likely energy mix" in 2032 will comprise hydrocarbons (60 GW capacity); nuclear (17.6 GW); solar PV (16 GW); concentrated solar power (25 GW); wind (9 GW); waste-to-energy (3 GW); and geothermal (1 GW). KACARE states: "In this scenario, nuclear, geothermal and waste-to-energy will provide the base load up to night-time demand during winter; photovoltaic energy will meet total daytime demand year round; concentrated solar power, with storage, will meet the maximum demand difference between photovoltaic and base load technologies; and hydrocarbons will meet the remaining demand."7

KACARE Vice President Waleed Abulfaraj says that only Generation 3 and 3+ reactors will be considered. Reactor vendors from around the world are manoeuvring to secure contracts − France, the US, South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. It seems likely that at least two consortia will be contracted to supply reactors.4,8,9 Saudi Arabia will play potential suppliers off against each other to secure the best possible deals with add-ons such as training and technology transfer.

Neutron Bytes blogger Dan Yurman points to "significant challenges": "For instance, where will the work force come from starting with contractors who can pour concrete to meet nuclear reactor standards? The supply chain issues are huge with contracting taking place on a global scale. Then there is the question of all the skilled trades and engineers who will be needed for a decade or longer. On a cultural note, how well will the conservative KSA tolerate tens of thousands of workers, including women, who are not Muslims and who want to live their home country lifestyles?"10

Three sites have been short-listed given their proximity to coolant water sources, their position on the electrical grid and their location near electricity-intensive consumers, such as desalination plants. The sites are Jubail on the Gulf Coast and Tabuk and Jazan on the Red Sea.4

Economics of nuclear power in Saudi Arabia

Does Saudi Arabia's nuclear power program make sense? There is no pretence that hydrocarbons will be left in situ as a climate change mitigation measure − the plan is to increase hydrocarbon exports by partially substituting (growing) domestic demand with nuclear power and renewables. That substitution makes economic sense for oil, less so for gas. There is logic to the plan to marry baseload power sources with intermittent renewables − although energy storage technologies could weaken that logic.

A detailed economic analysis by Ali Ahmad and M.V. Ramana concludes: "Our results suggest that for a large range of parameters, the economics of nuclear power are not favorable in comparison with natural gas, even if the currently low domestic natural gas prices in Saudi Arabia were to rise substantially. Further, electricity from solar plants has the potential to be cheaper than nuclear power within the next decade if the rapid decline in solar energy costs in the last decade continue, i.e., before the first planned nuclear power plant would be completed. However, unless the price of oil drops substantially below current values, it would be more economically optimal to export the oil than using it for generating electricity."11

For desalination, Ahmad and Ramana conclude that nuclear is more expensive than natural gas but "clearly cheaper" than concentrated solar power and solar PV.

A weapons agenda?

Ahmad writes in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that "Saudi Arabia's motivation for pursuing nuclear technology is not based on a careful economic assessment of energy options, but on more complex security and political calculations."12

It is no secret that Saudi Arabia is considering developing nuclear weapons. For example:

* Dennis Ross, a senior US diplomat and a former envoy to the Middle East, said that in April 2009 King Abdullah told him: "If they [Iran] get nuclear weapons, we will get nuclear weapons."12

* In 2011, Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former head of Saudi intelligence, said: "It is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so would compel Saudi Arabia ... to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences." 12

* In April 2014, Turki al-Faisal said: "Preserving our regional security requires that we, as a Gulf grouping, work to create a real balance of forces with [Iran], including in nuclear know-how."13

* Nawaf Obaid, a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh, and Special Counselor to Prince Turki Al Faisal, said in December 2013: "But what is clear, and here there should be no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding, is that if the Iranians are allowed to keep "an enrichment capability" that will over the medium- to long-term make them a de facto nuclear power, then Saudi Arabia, in keeping with its new emerging strategic doctrine, will have no choice but to go nuclear as well."14

In a May 2014 paper, Nawaf Obaid wrote: "Of course, if Iran gets nuclear weapons (with Israel already having a nuclear arsenal), KSA will be forced to follow suit. Thus, KSA should explore its nuclear provision options in order to prepare for a very likely nuclear Iran in the medium-to-long term. ... If such a scenario occurs, KSA will initiate a domestic nuclear weapons program within a yet to be specified time-period to counter Iran's acquisition. A credible nuclear strategy would mandate that a rapid nuclear deterrent be obtained in the short term and that the establishment of an indigenous nuclear weapons program take shape over the medium- to long-term."15

In addition to lowering the barriers to a weapons capability, a Saudi nuclear power program − coupled with sabre-rattling about developing weapons − may be designed to force a stronger international response to Iran's nuclear program (in particular its enrichment program); and it could be used to leverage greater Saudi access to conventional military hardware (and on better terms).

Regardless of intent, a nuclear power program would bring Saudi Arabia far closer to a weapons capability. Power reactors in the normal course of operation produce large quantities of weapons-useable, reactor-grade plutonium and they could produce large quantities of weapon-grade plutonium by running reactor/s on a short operating cycle. Plutonium production would be of no consequence unless Saudi Arabia also develops a reprocessing capacity to separate plutonium from irradiated fuel.

In addition, a nuclear power program would necessarily entail the development of significant nuclear science and engineering expertise which could be redeployed to a weapons program. And a nuclear power program could justify the acquisition of other technologies − such as enrichment and reprocessing technology, and research/training reactors − which might be put to use in a weapons program.

Sensitive Nuclear Technologies

A key question is whether Saudi Arabia will attempt to acquire 'Sensitive Nuclear Technologies' (SNT) − enrichment and/or reprocessing − in conjunction with its nuclear power program. There is nothing more than an oblique reference to "fuel cycle research and development" on the KACARE website.16

Argentina's INVAP has been contracted to build Saudi Arabia's first research reactor − but it will be a very low-power (0.03 MWt) training reactor17 and any reprocessing (hot cell) capacity associated with the research reactor will presumably be of little or no proliferation significance.

In 2007, Saudi Arabia, on behalf of the Gulf Cooperative Council, announced an offer to launch a regional enrichment consortium to establish an enrichment facility under the supervision of the IAEA in a neutral country, such as Switzerland, for all users of enriched uranium in the Middle East (including Iran).18 However that proposal sunk without trace.

David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security and a former IAEA weapons inspector, says he has heard concerns from a European intelligence agency that in recent years Saudi Arabia has been developing the engineering and scientific knowledge base to master the nuclear fuel cycle, and hiring scientists and engineers capable of building the cascades of centrifuges needed to enrich uranium.19

In early 2014 at the Munich Security Conference, Sen. Lindsey Graham asked Prince Turki al-Faisal if any final agreement that allowed Iran to maintain an enrichment capability would cause Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to invoke their own right to enrich uranium. "I think we should insist on having equal rights for everybody, this is part of the [Non-Proliferation Treaty] arrangement," the prince said.19

According to reports in 2010, Finnish power industry consulting company Poyry was contracted by Saudi Arabia to investigate the feasibility and prospects of enriching uranium in Saudi Arabia.20

Nuclear supplier states

Might reactor supplier states make supply conditional on commitments from Riyadh not to develop SNT? If so, would those commitments be substantive and legally binding or would they be voluntary and not worth the paper they are written on?

The US and Saudi Arabia signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation in 2008. Announcing the MoU, the US State Department said: "Saudi Arabia has stated its intent to rely on international markets for nuclear fuel and to not pursue sensitive nuclear technologies, which stands in direct contrast to the actions of Iran."21

However for US companies to be involved in the development of nuclear technology in Saudi Arabia, the two countries would have to conclude a bilateral nuclear trade agreement (known as a 123 agreement). Informal discussions regarding a 123 agreement began in 2011 if not earlier.22 The US State Department announced in 2013 that negotiations on a 123 agreement had commenced. However as Global Security Newswire reported: "Democrats and Republicans alike have signaled they might block any U.S. nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia, particularly if Israel opposes such a deal. Of additional concern is the potential for instability in the kingdom, leading to worries about who might control sensitive nuclear technologies if the Saudi ruling family is ever expelled from power."23

Reflecting a current of political opinion in the US, Rep. Illena Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), then chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in 2011: "I'm astonished that the administration is even considering a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia." She added that she thinks it is an "unstable country in an unstable region" and pointed to a statement by former ambassador al-Faisal about the possibility of Saudi Arabia developing nuclear weapons if Iran doesn't curb its program.24

State Department official Thomas Countryman said in June 2013 that Washington is "discussing" with Riyadh an agreement which would prohibit the development of SNT in Saudi Arabia despite earlier indications that the Saudis were not amenable to the idea.25

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) agreed to forego SNT in its 123 agreement with the US. However the US has since relaxed the 'gold standard' of binding prohibitions on SNT and is now willing to conclude 123 agreements with (at most) voluntary, unenforceable commitments to forego SNT.

Even the UAE's rejection of SNT could unravel − it is conditional on similar provisions being included in 123 agreements with other regional countries. Thus it is potentially jeopardised by developments in countries such as Iran, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Iran is resisting pressure to dismantle its uranium enrichment program, while 123 negotiations between the US and Jordan and Saudi Arabia have reportedly been delayed and complicated by the unwillingness of Jordan and Saudi Arabia to agree to forego SNT.26


Opposition in the US to nuclear trade with Saudi Arabia is largely driven by concern about possible collaboration between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In 2013, Senator Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, asked the president to share the administration's assessment of possible nuclear co-operation between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and to halt talks about US-Saudi co-operation on the transfer of nuclear technology.27

Important moments in the nuclear history between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are summarised in a March 2014 Washington Institute paper: "The most publicly discussed strategy for the Saudis involves acquiring nuclear weapons from Pakistan, either purchased or under some arrangement of joint control with Pakistani forces. In 1999, then Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz visited Pakistan's unsafeguarded centrifuge enrichment site at Kahuta near Islamabad and also saw mock-ups of Pakistan's nuclear weapons. During the visit, Prince Sultan met the controversial Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, who was blamed for proliferating centrifuges to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, as well as then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was later exiled to Saudi Arabia after a military coup and is now once again Pakistan's prime minister."5,12

Gary Samore, until March 2013 President Obama's counter-proliferation adviser, told the BBC last year: "I do think that the Saudis believe that they have some understanding with Pakistan that, in extremis, they would have claim to acquire nuclear weapons from Pakistan."28

There is informed speculation that Saudi financial support for Pakistani military programs − including perhaps its nuclear weapons program − may underpin an understanding or agreement between the two countries that could lead to the transfer of weapons or weapons technology to Saudi Arabia, or (perhaps most likely) an arrangement under which Pakistani nuclear forces could be deployed in Saudi Arabia.28


Saudi Arabia concluded a 'Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement' with the IAEA in 2009. But Riyadh only agreed to an earlier version of the 'Small Quantities Protocol (SQP)' and has yet to accept the modified SQP adopted by the IAEA Board of Governors in 2005. Moreover Saudi Arabia − like Iran − has conspicuously failed to sign an Additional Protocol which would allow for more intrusive and wide-ranging IAEA inspections. Nor has Saudi Arabia signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.5

If Saudi Arabia wanted to pursue uranium enrichment, Pakistan might be willing to assist; it may be the only country with relevant expertise willing to help. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, under its SQP obligations, could secretly build enrichment technology and need only tell the IAEA 180 days before introducing nuclear material − R&D, mechanical testing of centrifuges, and testing with surrogate materials, need not be revealed. 5

Canadian officials have expressed concerns about the potential for Saudi Arabia to pursue nuclear weapons. "Minimal safeguards are in place in SA [Saudi Arabia] to verify peaceful uses of nuclear energy ... and it has refused to accept strengthened safeguards," officials said in an assessment prepared for Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister in March 2012. "Many observers question SA's nuclear intentions, especially if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. As a result, SA does not meet Canada's requirements for nuclear cooperation."29

China, France and South Korea have completed nuclear cooperation agreements with Saudi Arabia29 and it is unlikely those agreements contain any meaningful non-proliferation clauses.

What should be done?

Nuclear supplier states could collectively agree that nuclear technology transfer to Saudi Arabia will be conditional on a Riyadh accepting binding, meaningful commitments not to develop or acquire SNT. But there is no chance of that happening and some supplier states have already concluded agreements without any SNT prohibition.

The Washington Institute paper makes these recommendations: "Experience suggests that military nuclear programs are best stopped at their earlier stages. Inaction, as the world has seen with Pakistan and North Korea and, more recently, Iran and Syria, leads to wicked problems. Saudi Arabia should thus be encouraged to sign the Additional Protocol to its NPT Safeguards Agreement and implement it provisionally until ratified. The Saudis should also be urged to rescind their SQP and conclude up-to-date subsidiary arrangements to the Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. These gestures would oblige the kingdom to give the IAEA design information about nuclear installations as soon as the decision is made to build them. The IAEA would likewise have access to all nuclear-fuel-cycle-related installations, even if they did not use nuclear material. Such provisions should be included in any U.S.-Saudi 123 agreement and are initial steps toward a nuclear-weapons-free Middle East."5

There is little reason for optimism. India provides a comparison − nuclear supplier states are falling over themselves to get into the Indian nuclear market with no requirement for India to forego SNT, or to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, or to curb its nuclear weapons program in any way.

And while the Obama administration might prefer to kick the can down the road, difficult decisions regarding a 123 agreement may need to be made sooner rather than later if indeed Riyadh does intend to fast-track a nuclear power program.


1. 'Saudis Announce Plan to Build 1st Nuclear Reactor', 2 Sept 2014,

2. WNA, Sept 2014, 'Nuclear Power in Saudi Arabia',

3. James Conca, 8 Sept 2014, 'Saudi Arabia Fast-Tracks Nuclear Power',

4. 14 Jan 2014, 'Future of Nuclear Energy in Emerging Markets: Kingdom of Saudi Arabia',

5. Olli Heinonen and Simon Henderson, 27 March 2014, 'Nuclear Kingdom: Saudi Arabia's Atomic Ambitions',

6. Ana Komnenic, 6 Jan 2014, 'Why does Saudi Arabia need nuclear power?',

7. KACARE, 'Energy Sustainability for Future Generations',

8. Daniel Fineren, 23 April 2014, 'Nuclear Saudi Arabia a lifeline for the atomic energy industry',

9. WNA 9 September 2013, 'Teaming up for Saudi bids',

10. Dan Yurman, 2 Sept 2014, 'Saudis update ambitious nuclear energy plans',

11. Ali Ahmad and M.V. Ramana, 1 May 2014, 'Too costly to matter: Economics of nuclear power for Saudi Arabia', Energy & Environment, Vol 69, pp.682–694,

12. Ali Ahmad, 17 Dec 2013, 'The Saudi proliferation question', Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,

13. 24 April 2014, 'Saudi Prince Urges Mideast Counterbalance to Iran's 'Nuclear Know-How'',

14. Nawaf Obaid, 3 Dec 2013, 'The Iran deal: a view from Saudi Arabia',

15. Nawaf Obaid, 27 May 2014, 'A Saudi Arabian Defense Doctrine',


17. Eman El-Shenawi, 29 June 2011, 'Saudi Arabia signs nuclear-energy deal with Argentina',

18. Mark Fitzpatrick, Jan/Feb 2009, 'Drawing a Bright Redline: Forestalling Nuclear Proliferation in the Middle East',

19. NTI, 14 Feb 2014, 'Report: Saudi Arabia Wants Uranium-Enrichment Capacity',

20. Mark Hibbs, 24 Aug 2010, 'Saudi Arabian Uranium Enrichment?',

21. US State Department, 16 May 2008, 'U.S.-Saudi Arabia Memorandum of Understanding on Nuclear Energy Cooperation',

22. Daniel Horner, Sept 2011, 'U.S., Saudi Arabia Mull Nuclear Talks',

23. Elaine M. Grossman, 1 Feb 2013, 'U.S. Nuclear Marketers Visited Saudi Arabia, As Trade Talks Under Way',

24. Dan Yurman, 23 Aug 2011, 'Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Energy Ambitions',

25. Elaine M. Grossman, 29 July 2013, 'Q&A: Envoy Says Saudi Nuclear Pact ‘Would Not' Lead to Weapons',

26. Mark Hibbs and Fred McGoldrick, 15 Oct 2013, 'Policy on Sensitive Nuclear Activities',

27. Mark Urban, 22 Nov 2013, 'Saudi nuclear weapons: US senator demands Obama action',

28. Mark Urban, 6 Nov 2013, 'Saudi nuclear weapons 'on order' from Pakistan',

29. NTI, 29 Jan 2013, 'Saudi Atomic Aims Worry Canada',