The Saudi Request for U.S. Nuclear Cooperation and Its Geopolitical Quandaries

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Description: A short, spoken-word summary from CSIS’s Jane Nakano on her commentary, "The Saudi Request for U.S. Nuclear Cooperation and Its Geopolitical Quandaries."

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Whether to export nuclear power to Saudi Arabia is one of the most complex questions for the United States and the one now entangled in the Biden administration’s ongoing effort to broker better relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. U.S. nuclear power technology and expertise is among the key requests made by the Saudis—to which no unified Israeli response has yet emerged. Since the Saudis began soliciting international proposals for what would be the country’s first nuclear power plant in the late 2010s, the geopolitical environment surrounding Washington’s decisionmaking has significantly changed, with the heightening U.S.-China rivalry and the uneasy U.S.-Saudi relations as the key illuminating backdrops.

The Saudi interest in acquiring nuclear power technology became publicly known around 2010, with a royal decree stipulating 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.” Also, having pledged to meet carbon neutrality by 2060, Saudi Arabia looks to nuclear as an important source of zero-emissions electricity.

In addition to the United States, China National Nuclear Corporation of China, Électricité de France of France, Rosatom of Russia, and Korea Electric Power Corporation of South Korea have been in discussions to land the contract to build two inaugural nuclear power units in Saudi Arabia. Most of these countries have advanced their nuclear efforts significantly in recent years. China has the fastest-growing nuclear power sector although its export experience is thus far limited to Pakistan. France was the first to launch civil nuclear negotiations with Saudi Arabia in 2011, but the French nuclear industry is facing some major financial and project challenges. Russia is a leading global supplier of nuclear power technology, including in regions new to commercial nuclear, such as the Middle East (Iran) and Africa (Egypt). However, the ongoing war and the uncertainty over Russia’s domestic political stability likely render a major commercial deal to be diplomatically risky and politically unpalatable. Meanwhile, having successfully delivered the Arab world’s first nuclear power plant in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in 2020, South Korea is touting its fresh expertise managing a nuclear project in the desert climate, although it lacks an extensive export track record of the United States or Russia.

Westinghouse, a U.S. company, has been a key contender although the Saudis reportedly excluded the company in 2022, essentially forcing the United States to partner with South Korea through an arrangement similar to one structured for the aforementioned Barakah project in the UAE. The U.S. nuclear industry continues to enjoy a strong global reputation for its nuclear engineering and technical expertise. Meanwhile, a deal involving U.S. technology or components comes with high level of nonproliferation obligations. Such obligations include commitment to forswear the right to enrich or reprocess nuclear material under Section 123 of the U.S. Atomic Energy Act (commonly known as the “123 Agreement”), and to agree to ratify the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Additional Protocol, which aims to guarantee IAEA access to inspect nuclear fuel sites, among others. Enrichment and reprocessing capabilities are of serious nonproliferation concern as mastery of either process creates the potential to use fissile material for a nuclear weapon.

Saudi Arabia has been publicly interested in obtaining the capacity to enrich domestic uranium to establish the entire nuclear fuel cycle, including the production of yellowcake, low enriched uranium, and the manufacturing of nuclear fuel both for both domestic use and exporting. While economic diversification through the development of domestic uranium industry may be a genuine interest, Saudi leadership has also shown little opposition to turning nuclear power capacity into developing a nuclear weapon if it deemed necessary to acquire such capability. The ongoing Saudi resistance to the U.S. nonproliferation conditions has generated controversy, given Saudi Arabia acceded to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1988—i.e., the country is legally bound to not pursue nuclear weapons. Additionally, Washington would be hard-pressed to make an exception to the Saudi request, as it would also allow the UAE to reopen its 123 Agreement with the United States, potentially triggering a race to develop enrichment and reprocessing capabilities in the Middle East and beyond.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the Saudi interest in sealing a deal with the Chinese while also noting that some unnamed Saudi officials acknowledged this development as “a way of goading the Biden administration to compromise on its nonproliferation requirements.” But how likely is Saudi Arabia to choose China over the United States—or a U.S.-Korea partnership? Does the Chinese bid include assistance with enrichment or reprocessing capability? Does China’s lack of nonproliferation-related pressure outweigh their lack of export track record?

Conversely, what would nuclear power export to Saudi Arabia mean for China? Nuclear exports would be a further departure from China’s earlier approach to the Middle Eastern affairs, which was akin to managing a “portfolio of investments,” and taking a neutral position in the Saudi-Iranian conflict, in pursuit of maximizing economic gains. Moreover, nuclear commerce could further the Saudi-China geopolitical ties, as exemplified by the recent invitation for Saudi Arabia to join BRICS—a bloc of emerging economies that China is pushing to become a major rival to the U.S.-led Group of Seven. But several key questions warrant an answer. How would its nuclear power assistance to Saudi Arabia fit with China’s apparent desire to be a key peace broker between Saudi Arabia and Iran? Would China be prepared for sustained, substantive involvement in Saudi-Iranian affairs? Also, what level of commitment is Beijing prepared to make to ensuring nuclear nonproliferation and security in the Middle East?

Each of the nuclear export contenders and bids has its own relative advantage and disadvantage. Who Saudi Arabia chooses depends on what the country wants geopolitically, and there is only one person who can likely answer that question. In contrast, Washington has multiple stakeholders, interests, and concerns. Perspectives on a nuclear power deal with Saudi Arabia will vary significantly, ranging from a sense of relief for the U.S. nuclear industry, to angst from nonproliferation experts. Yet, the ultimate decision rests with the White House. If the White House submits a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia to Congress, Congress would have 90 days in continuous session to consider the agreement and it could be brought into force unless Congress adopts a joint resolution of disapproval.

Nuclear commerce is inherently geopolitical in nature. A nuclear power project is a multi-decadal endeavor—including construction, fuel provision, and maintenance—that generally strengthens bilateral ties. Also, such depth and length of engagement can accord the supplier country insight into and influence over nuclear power programs of a recipient country. What would be the geopolitical price to the United States of forswearing a potential leverage or influence on the course of a Saudi nuclear power development? Meanwhile, landing a deal to supply the initial two units is no guarantee that a potential subsequent deal to build part of a 16-unit fleet that Saudi Arabia seeks to have by 2040, would not go to another supplier as eager as China. Few other decisions could be more consequential to the United States and the global order as to whether to export nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia.

Jane Nakano is a senior fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jane Nakano
Senior Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program