5 Myths about Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Program

Saudi Arabia's Deputy Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (2nd L) takes his seat to meet with U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis and his delegation in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

Enabling Riyadh would only make the region’s nuclear landscape riskier.

Much has been written about Saudi Arabia’s plans for nuclear power since the Trump administration announced last fall that it would conclude a civilian nuclear cooperative agreement with Riyadh. Almost all of this commentary suggests Washington must accommodate the kingdom’s desire to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, two activities that bring states to the brink of making bombs. In particular, commentators repeatedly raise five points—none of which are sound.

Myth #1: Saudi Arabia needs nuclear power to meet its growing electrical demand.

If Saudi Arabia is to have a prosperous economic future, we are told, it must meet its growing power requirements by burning less oil. For this, nuclear proponents insist, the Saudis need sixteen large reactors. Although often repeated, this is not true. In 2012, the Saudis announced their intention to build sixteen reactors by 2032. By 2017, Saudi planners had pushed this back to 2040. Shortly thereafter, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman backed an national development plan for 2030 that didn’t mention nuclear power, but instead focused on investing in renewables. Most recently, the Saudis announced that instead of sixteen large power reactors, they are only building two. Some have argued that this slippage reflects the kingdom’s desire to finance reactor construction with its oil revenues. With the price of oil dropping from $100 a barrel several years ago to roughly $60 a barrel today, the schedule for nuclear construction had to slide. If true, this suggests the Saudi nuclear “imperative” is less than urgent.

A more compelling explanation is that Saudis don’t need nuclear power. In fact, recent studies found that the Saudis could more cheaply meet their energy and environmental requirements by developing its natural-gas resources and investing in renewables—photovoltaic, concentrated solar power and wind. They also found economic value in upgrading the kingdom’s electrical grid and reducing subsidies that artificially drive up electrical demand. This should not be surprising. The United Arab Emirates, Riyadh’s next-door neighbor, which began construction of four power reactors several years ago, just announced that the UAE would not be building any more nuclear plants. Why? Cheaper alternatives: in addition to plentiful natural gas and wind resources, the Emirates are now investing in photovoltaic systems and solar thermal storage systems, which together can operate twenty-four hours a day more cheaply than nuclear. These findings also apply to Saudi Arabia.

Myth #2: Without a formal nuclear cooperative agreement with Riyadh, America will forgo billions of dollars of nuclear hardware and know-how exports to the kingdom.

This point presumes that the kingdom will stick with its 2012 energy plan, which it has already backed away from. It also mistakenly assumes that America still manufactures export reactors. The only American-headquartered firm that is actively interested in exporting to the kingdom is Westinghouse. It is entirely foreign owned and is a reactor designer, not a manufacturer. It’s currently in bankruptcy proceedings, and is eager to be bought by a Canadian holding firm. Naturally, Westinghouse would like its prospective buyers to believe that it has a clear shot at the Saudi market.

Unfortunately it’s, at best, a long shot. Westinghouse’s design, the AP1000, has yet to operate anywhere. The reactor’s construction is embarrassingly behind schedule and over budget both in China and the United States. Mismanagement by Westinghouse caused two reactors in South Carolina to be terminated after an expenditure of $9 billion, which, in turn, nearly bankrupted Westinghouse’s Japanese owner, Toshiba. Finally, American nuclear know-how and other nonnuclear electrical generating parts can and have been exported in support of non-American reactors abroad without a formal nuclear cooperative agreement. These goods would likely make up a majority of American nuclear exports to the kingdom but, again, their export does not require negotiating a nuclear cooperative agreement.

Myth #3: If Westinghouse does not win the bid, the Russians or Chinese will, reducing American nuclear influence in the region.