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May 17, 2008 / Mridul

Bush’s Nuclear Technology Offer To Saudi Arabia Is Fundamentally Flawed

During the recent visit to Saudi Arabia President George W Bush talked about a possible civilian nuclear deal with the King Abdullah. Bush wants to help the kingdom develop nuclear power for medical and industrial uses in addition to generating electricity. Bush called Saudi Arabia a model of non-proliferation for the region clearly pointing out Iran which according to him is a major nuclear technology proliferator.

Iran has pursued numerous routes to acquire an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle capability to provide it with fissile material for weapons. Iran is going down the plutonium route through construction of a heavy water research reactor and a heavy water plant. It has conducted experiments to separate and purify plutonium. Iran also has pursued the ability to begin enrichment, thereby going down the uranium route to a bomb. It is building facilities to convert and enrich uranium. All of these efforts involved a dizzying array of cover stories and false statements. Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is real — an issue the Bush Administration takes — and believes the international community takes — very seriously.

Robert G. Joseph, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security speaking at the Carnegie International Nonproliferation Conference in November 2005.

Offering Saudi Arabia nuclear technology for power generation is bit hard to justify given the enormous reserves of oil the kingdom has. Helping Saudi Arabia go nuclear won’t make Iran back down from its own nuclear program instead in could start a race among the Middle East nations to go nuclear which could lead to catastrophic consequences.

Voices of concern are loud in Washington where many seem unhappy especially because the involvement of Saudi nationals in the September 2001 attacks and because the Saudis have refused to increase the crude oil output even after repeated requests from Mr. Bush – the last one made during this very visit which was ‘politely’ rebuffed by the Saudis.

The situation is getting even more concerning since many Middle East nations have shown desires to acquire nuclear technology. Although these countries are asking for nuclear assistance ‘openly’ and seem to have no hidden nuclear program like the one Iran has still the situation could get worse given that peace has eluded the region for more many years. Most probably these countries would allow full inspection by the IAEA but having too many nuclear sites in such a sensitive region isn’t a pleasant scenario.

One also has to question President Bush’s motive to offer the deal at this time. The nuclear deal with India is in the doldrums and the deal with Russia is set to face some tough resistance in the US Congress. Since Mr. Bush is coming close to the end of his term most nations have started looking forward to the new administration and more importantly because of an imminent Democratic win in the November election.

It is hard to see what Mr. Bush seeks to achieve by providing Saudi Arabia with nuclear technology. As far as medical and industrial applications are concerned the machines can easily be imported from overseas. Andif Mr. Bush is looking to make the world a better place by pushing the Saudi’s to move over oil in favor of cleaner technologies then why not provide them assistance with solar and win energy instead. It seem that there is no scientific or industrial purpose of the deal and the strategic purpose, if any, evades me.



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  1. John Burgess / May 18 2008 2:10 am

    I’d argue that the KSA has many good reasons to develop nuclear energy. Saudi Arabia is one of the greatest per capita users of electricity in the world, even beyond what the US uses.

    Why is that? Well, the drinking water for over 80% of the population comes from desalination plants, powered by electricity. Over 70% of the population uses air conditioning to combat summer temperature that exceeds 125°F. Further, its expanding industrial base is designed to use electricity for things like aluminum smelting and petroleum refining.

    Oil–or natural gas–could be used, but at the prices they sell for, why should the Saudis use an expensive resource when cheaper ones are available?

    Solar power (the Saudis have more sunlight than oil, after all) is also possible, but not currently feasible. The Saudi government is investing hundreds of millions of dollars in solar research, and have had strong research programs since the 1980, but the efficiency isn’t there yet.

    The solutions available today for both today’s problems and those of the near future are reasonably found in nuclear energy.

    Why should the US help? If not the US, who? Off the top of my head, I can think that France, China, Russia, Pakistan, and India would be happy to jump in. N. Korea, I’m sure, would also find it helpful to get cash or oil for nuclear cooperation.

    If the US gets its foot in the door first, it can look toward downstream income, from the costs of consultants and design firms to the sale of reactors. That’s a lot of business that the US would like to capture, if only to offset what it spends on Saudi oil.

    There’s nothing mysterious about this, to me.

  2. Mridul Chadha / May 18 2008 9:20 am

    Thanks for the comment, John.

    You stated great points in favor of the deal. I agree that the Saudi Arabia’ energy consumption is very high and nuclear energy seems to be a safe bet. But strategically the step doesn’t feel right. Not only Bush’s offer but also the offers made by France & Canada to other Middle East nations.

    Like other countries Saudi Arabia too should be looking at cleaner sources of energy but nuclear option could harm the region. And even if they want to assist Saudi Arabia or other nations them should first talk to Iran (instead of exchanging provocative comments) because Iran would most certainly accelerate its nuclear program once its neighbors go nuclear.

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