Saudi Arabia, South Korea and the US- A Bid for a Nuclear Deal.
In 1999, Saudi defense minister Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz visited Pakistan’s centrifuge enrichment site at Kahuta near Islamabad and was also shown mock-ups of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Prince Sultan met the controversial Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, who‘s responsible for proliferating centrifuges to Iran, Libya, and North Korea, as well as prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who was later exiled to Saudi Arabia after a military coup and served as Pakistan’s prime minister. Sharif transferred nuclear warheads to Saudi Arabia, including missiles capable of hitting Iranian targets. Earlier this year, reports indicated that in 2007, KSA updated its previous arsenal of liquid-fueled Chinese CSS-2 missiles with more advanced, solid-fueled CSS-5 missiles. Both types are designed to carry nuclear warheads, but the newer missiles have been adapted, at the insistence of the US governement, so that they can carry only nonnuclear warheads. This is a vital background and shouldn’t be ignored as a side note as the Iran-Saudi conflict is in full force and other global powers have been slowly aligning and forming sides.
Saudi Arabia, the biggest petroleum exporter, is heavily reliant on oil and gas for its electricity production. This may set them at a great disadvantage as the global community is moving away from finite resources to a new world of alternative and green energy. The Czech Republic is planning to complete the construction of four nuclear power plants before 2040. Similar projects are expected to be launched in the near future in South Africa, Turkey, Vietnam, Egypt, India, etc.
In 2009, the royal family announced that “the 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.” The “King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy and the Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute” (KACARE), was established a year later to develop alternate energy, including atomic power. Soon after around 2011, construction began for 16 nuclear power reactors over the next 20 years at a cost of $80 billion. The hope is that this would generate about a fifth of KSA’s electricity, while other reactors to be purposed for desalination.
KACARE signed an agreement with the South Korean government in September 2015 that will remain until November 2018. This would be South Korea’s second nuclear exports deal in the Middle East. The first is a 2009 nuclear exports deal worth $20 billion with the UAE. Cooperation with the UAE can be a boon to South Korea’s efforts for financing in future projects. The Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is the second-largest sovereign wealth fund in the world with an asset of 780 trillion.
Saudi/S.Korea bilateral energy relationship has roots as early as 1962. This month, KSA sent 41 nuclear experts to South Korea with the intent to train and develop nuclear plants based on System-integrated Modular Advanced Reactor (SMART) technology. This signifies a strong sense that the South Koreans will win the bid Saudi has set forth to develop KSA’s nuclear power. They are to jointly develop new reactors. In return, Saudi has promised to invest in the joint development of electric and other future-oriented vehicles with South Korea. The SMART project aims to design and develop compact nuclear reactors so that the Kingdom can diversify energy sources in line with Vision 2030.
The Trump administration seems to have failed to win this bid with Saudi Arabia. Mainly because the US has set a requirement to have Westinghouse as their nuclear power reactor supplier. Unfortunately, Westinghouse has performed poorly on its last two US projects and is in bankruptcy as a result. The South Korean construction firm whose work force is coming off successful completion of a large nuclear project nearby in the United Arab Emirates is the likely winner of this bid. This increases the importance of striking a tight US-Saudi agreement to ensure the Saudis don’t get to enrich under their nuclear cooperative agreement with Seoul.
The US has once again forfeited it’s number one spot in favor of nations who invested and perfected their nuclear technology. The Trump administration is slowly pulling away from any US presence in the ME, Asia, and even Europe, when pulling away from the Paris agreements. Some have suggested that US failure to lead, may risk a Saudi/Russia or Saudi/China deal.
Precisly for that reason, the enrichment provision in the 2011 Saudi-South Korean agreement is of vital: “Uranium transferred pursuant to this Agreement or used in any equipment so transferred shall not be enriched to twenty (20) percent or more in the isotope U-235 unless the Parties otherwise agree.” In other words, the agreement permits KSA to build enrichment facilities generally, and in particular the enrichment to 20% of uranium supplied. The reason this is worrying and eerily reminiscent of the Iran deal, is its counter intuitive nature. To go past 20% enrichment to a bomb explosive level, it takes one-tenth of the work it took to get to 20%. It is especially worrying when the Saudi prince states that if Iran got a bomb, the Kingdom would too, “as soon as possible.”
Our only good fortune comes in our military might. Both KSA and South Korea are dependent on US military defense. Though Trump recently ordered US military presence in South Korea to be reduced, the US is still vital in protecting the two countries. This is the main reason both have agreed to this
“restrictive” provision. US Sen. Jack Reed, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, said: “The proliferation dangers are so great that we should be able to wield all of the influence we have, which goes way beyond just this one transaction, to insist [on the] same standards we applied to the Emirates.” Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act, requires the conclusion of a peaceful nuclear cooperation deal for significant transfers of nuclear material, equipment, or components from the United States. However, if another country in the region avoids such a restriction, the UAE retains the right to revisit its 123 Agreement.
If history taught us anyting, it is that — nuclear programs with intent for military use, must be stopped right at their inception when at the hands of hostile countries who aren’t a part of any international treaty and lack transparency. This is our experience with Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Syria. Olli Heinonen, a senior fellow with the Belfer Center at Harvard University and a former deputy director-general for safeguards at the IAEA, and Simon Henderson, the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute, have recommended that “Saudi Arabia should 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.”
How do we move forward utilizing nuclear energy to power our homes and cars while making sure no unstable dictator, or government use their capabilities to launch an attack or create a nuclear stockpile, capable of global destruction. KSA’s conflict with Iran is an obvious motivator for KSA to move into an agreement with South Korea with or without American provisions of safety and limits. The incentive is — remain compliant in the short term while gaining the knowledge in the long term. By year 15 of the Iran deal, Iran would have installed a large uranium enrichment capability. This is the deal we are looking at now for KSA.
The idea that the US should remain a global power and world police is often rejected as some barrier to world peace. Forces and powers move and change without consent. My favorite vacuum theory must and will always remain a global vacuum one. If not the US, then who? China, Russia, Saudi? My hope is that a united Europe perhaps under a Macron leadership, may be able to curtail and watch over the various ambitions of the less stable countries but in reality, only a a force with the magnitude of a US military can provide these safeguards, guarantees, and a seat at the global negotiation table. If you give your seat, guarantees will undoubtedly lose their worth.