On the outskirts of Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is building what it sees as the future of its energy production.
At the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the Saudi government is constructing a small nuclear research reactor. The Argentine-designed reactor will produce just tens of kilowatts of energy, a tiny fraction of what Saudi Arabia needs. But it's a sign of things to come — the kingdom's plans include gigawatts of energy from nuclear plants for both electricity and desalination.
Saudi Arabia's plans appear, on paper, to be entirely peaceful. But some arms control experts are concerned that its nuclear energy ambitions may also be part of its ongoing rivalry with Iran, which already possesses dual-use technology that could aid in the production of a nuclear bomb.
The U.S. and others such as South Korea and China are pushing ahead with plans to help Saudi Arabia's civilian nuclear program.
"The big, big question in the background," says Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear expert and professor at George Washington University, "is do we have enough controls in place that we can trust [Saudi Arabia]? Since they've been pretty clear about their intentions should things go bad with Iran."
Right now, Saudi Arabia generates its electricity with fossil fuels. But the government predicts that oil will be more valuable as an export. So about a decade ago, Saudi Arabia began pursuing an ambitious plan to start a nuclear energy program. Even after the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan, Squassoni says, Saudi Arabia kept at it.
"Most countries were walking away from nuclear, but they decided, 'Look, this is our long-term plan,'" she says.
Squassoni says she's a bit flummoxed by Saudi Arabia's continued interest in nuclear, given its high cost and the ease with which the country could adopt renewable energy sources like solar.
But the interest may make a lot more sense, she says, when considering Saudi Arabia's rivalry with Iran. Iran's nuclear program has had military dimensions in the past, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Today, Iran remains in possession of thousands of centrifuges that can be used to enrich uranium. Depending on the level of enrichment, that uranium can be used either as fuel for nuclear reactors — or to make the cores of nuclear bombs.
Since 2015, the IAEA has closely monitored Iran's centrifuges as part of an international agreement that freezes Tehran's enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief. But Iran's nuclear capabilities clearly make Saudi Arabia nervous. Speaking last year on CBS' 60 Minutes, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned that if Iran ever got a nuke, Saudi Arabia would too. "Without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible," he said.
Saudi officials say the new research reactor under construction outside of Riyadh has nothing to do with nuclear bombs. In a statement to Bloomberg News last month, Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources said the reactor's purpose was "strictly peaceful."
"The project is fully in compliance with the IAEA and international framework governing the nuclear energy and its peaceful use," the statement said.
The Saudi Embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to an NPR request for comment.
From a technical standpoint, this new reactor is too small and too low-power to be of any use in bomb-making, according to Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. "This is not something that a country would engage upon for a weapons program," he says.
In fact, even large civilian nuclear power plants can't be used easily to make bombs. But Saudi Arabia has remained quiet on whether it wants its own centrifuges in addition to power plants. Such centrifuges might be legal, as they are used to enrich uranium for electricity production, but Stein says a Saudi decision to pursue that technology "would send alarm bells throughout the region."
"I think it would be interpreted as a move to hedge, and to consider building nuclear weapons down the line," Stein says.
The Trump administration has been looking at a nuclear cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia. Squassoni says such a deal should be carefully crafted. She hopes the U.S. will seek assurances that Saudi Arabia will not pursue civilian technologies that could allow it to make a bomb.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Saudi Arabia is building its first nuclear reactor. It's small, and nuclear-powered electricity is an important part of Saudi Arabia's plans for its future. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, there may be an ulterior reason for the interest in nukes.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Right now Saudi Arabia generates its electricity with fossil fuels.
SHARON SQUASSONI: They're one of the few countries that actually uses oil for electricity. Most countries stopped doing that in the '70s.
BRUMFIEL: Sharon Squassoni is at George Washington University. It's totally obvious why Saudi Arabia does this. They have lots of oil and natural gas. But looking to the future, the Saudi government predicts that oil will be more valuable as an export. So starting in the late 2000s, Saudi Arabia began pursuing an ambitious plan to start a nuclear energy program. Even after the 2011 nuclear disaster in Japan, Squassoni says Saudi Arabia kept at it.
SQUASSONI: Most countries were walking away from nuclear. But they decided, look; this is our long-term plan.
BRUMFIEL: Which she finds a little puzzling given that the country is perfectly suited for other kinds of less costly electricity production, particularly renewables.
SQUASSONI: They have these vast deserts that'd be pretty easy, I would think, to put out big solar farms
BRUMFIEL: Squassoni's background is an arms control, and she's worried that Saudi Arabia might be interested in nuclear technology for a different reason, nuclear weapons - why? - because of their chief rival in the region.
SQUASSONI: The big thing is Iran.
BRUMFIEL: Its nuclear program has had military dimensions in the past according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. Speaking last year on CBS' "60 Minutes," Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said, if Iran got a nuke, Saudi Arabia would, too.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "60 MINUTES")
CROWN PRINCE MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN: (Through interpreter) Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb. But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.
BRUMFIEL: Bin Salman's words matter because Saudi Arabia's nuclear plans are moving from paper to reality. Recent satellite images show construction is underway on its first research reactor on the outskirts of Riyadh. Aaron Stein is director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He says this new reactor is too small and too low-power to be of any use in bomb-making.
AARON STEIN: This is not something that a country would engage upon for a weapons program.
BRUMFIEL: In fact, even large civilian nuclear power plants can't be used easily to make bombs. But there are other parts of a civilian nuclear program that can. In particular, if Saudi Arabia decides it wants to make its own fuel for its nuclear reactors instead of buying it on the open market, that would require enriching uranium, which uses the same technologies that can be used to enrich uranium for bombs.
STEIN: I think that would send alarm bells throughout the region. I think that there would be interpreted as a move to hedge and to consider building nuclear weapons down the line.
BRUMFIEL: Saudi Arabia hasn't said whether it wants fuel-making technology, but there's plenty of reason to worry. Iran already has it, thousands of uranium centrifuges which for now remain under heavy international monitoring. The Trump administration is reportedly negotiating a nuclear cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia. Squassoni says that deal should be carefully crafted.
SQUASSONI: The big, big question in the background for the U.S. and for all suppliers of nuclear technology to the Saudis is - do we think we have enough controls in place that we can trust them since they've been pretty clear about their intentions should things go bad with Iran?
BRUMFIEL: She hopes the U.S. will seek assurances that Saudi Arabia will not pursue civilian technologies that could allow it to make a bomb.
Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.