In 2012, Saudi Arabia announced its plan to build several nuclear reactors, claiming that these would be necessary to supply the country’s energy needs as part of a strategy to wean itself from its oil dependency. Although Riyadh has backed away from this proposal, there are still those who argue that the kingdom should, in cooperation with the U.S., build its own nuclear reactors and even begin enriching uranium. Washington, the reasoning goes, can’t say no to enrichment, since the 2015 nuclear deal grants Iran permission to do so. But Henry Sokolski is skeptical of these arguments:
[The] unspoken motive for the kingdom to pursue a nuclear program is to develop an option to make nuclear weapons, if needed, to deter Iran. . . . [The] 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 their 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. . . .
Supporters of the Saudi nuclear program argue that the kingdom should enrich, given the uranium reserves the Saudis have discovered. Uranium, however, is plentiful globally and priced at historic lows (less than $22 a pound), as are uranium-enrichment services. More importantly, the kingdom would have to spend billions on a variety of plants to enrich uranium and produce its own nuclear fuel. . . .
[However], proponents of a permissive U.S.-Saudi nuclear deal argue that Washington lacks the leverage to secure a Saudi pledge not to make enrich or reprocess. The best Washington can do, it is argued, is to ask Riyadh to defer such dangerous nuclear activities for several years. Some even suggest that acceding to Riyadh’s wishes is in Washington’s interest, since allowing the Saudis the capacity to make nuclear weapons-usable fuels might help “deter” Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. None of this seems sound. . . .
Besides the odd optics of looking like a version of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran (which President Trump says is “the worst deal ever”), allowing Riyadh to enrich and reprocess would immediately excite the humors of the UAE and Egypt. Both have U.S. nuclear-cooperation agreements that allow them to request that their agreements be modified if the United States offers any of their neighbors a more generous nuclear deal. Then there are Morocco and Turkey: their nuclear agreements with Washington are up for renewal in 2021 and 2023. They, too, are likely to ask for equal treatment as soon as possible. How this serves anyone’s long-term interest is, at best, unclear.