US presses Saudi Arabia to allow tougher nuclear inspections
By JONATHAN TIRONE | Bloomberg | Published: September 17, 2019
The Trump administration has sent a letter to Saudi Arabia that sets out requirements the kingdom needs to follow in order to get U.S. nuclear technology and know-how.
The baseline for any agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia will be tougher inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry said at briefing in Vienna on Tuesday. The kingdom must adopt the IAEA's so-called Additional Protocol, a set of monitoring rules followed by more than 100 countries that give inspectors wide leeway in accessing potential atomic sites.
"We have sent them a letter laying out the requirements that the U.S. would have, certainly in line with what the IAEA would expect from the standpoint of additional protocol," said Perry, who's attending the IAEA's annual meeting this week. "An additional protocol is what is going to be required, not only because that's what the IAEA requires but because that's what Congress requires. This isn't just the Trump administration unilaterally deciding."
The remarks put pressure on the Saudi government to embrace broader monitoring of its atomic program or face difficulty fueling its first major reactor. The country is nearing completion of a low-powered research unit being built with Argentina's state-owned INVAP SE, which needs an inspections agreement in place before it can access the low-enriched uranium it needs to operate.
In the rarefied world of nuclear monitoring, the IAEA is responsible for sending hundreds of inspectors around the world to look after and maintain a vast network of cameras, seals and sensors. Their job is to account for gram levels of enriched uranium, ensuring that the key ingredient needed for nuclear power isn't diverted into building weapons. Without submitting to tighter IAEA monitoring, the kingdom would struggle to fuel its reactor.
So far, Saudi Arabian officials have declined to answer questions about when they may conclude a new IAEA safeguards deal.
Saudi Arabia "supports and endorses active international cooperation with regard to the transfer of nuclear technology and expertise," Khaled Bin Saleh Al-Sultan, president of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, said on Monday in a statement.
Saudi Arabia is currently signed up to the IAEA's so-called Small Quantities Protocol, a set of rules that will become obsolete once it needs atomic fuel for a working reactor. It hasn't adopted the rules and procedures that would allow nuclear inspectors to access potential sites of interest.
The IAEA is currently in talks with Saudi Arabia about signing a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement. That set of rules would allow the kingdom to fuel its research reactor but falls short of the Additional Protocol demanded by the U.S. for a full-scale plant, according to two diplomats familiar with the negotiations.
"There's still a period of edification that needs to go on with both citizens of the kingdom and leadership, so that they're comfortable," Perry said. Getting a new IAEA agreement done would show "we're big guys and we know the requirements to play at this level."
Enrichment of uranium into nuclear fuel is at the heart of the U.S. conflict with Iran because of the technology can be easily adapted to military purposes. A tighter inspections system in Saudi Arabia would give the IAEA insight into exactly how that country's capabilities and intentions are evolving.
Perry confirmed reports that Saudi Arabia has indicated it's interested in producing its own nuclear fuel.
"I consider this to be a form of negotiation," said Perry, who spoke with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman before joining this week's IAEA talks. "We have a really good professional and personal relationship."