Saudi Arabia has a very ambitious nuclear plan, with the intention to install 17.6 GW(e) by 2032. Key to seeing this plan come to fruition is, as with other prospective nuclear power countries, having the Kingdom sign up to international nuclear obligations, especially in relation to nuclear safety, spent fuel and radioactive waste management safety and safeguards.
So it was interesting to see the Arab News report that, “The Cabinet, in its weekly meeting on Monday, reiterated Saudi Arabia’s belief in the legitimate right of Middle Eastern countries to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes, under supervision of and according to the International Agency for Atomic Energy standards.”
At first sight, this is a statement of the obvious, but is there more to this? Saudi has signed up to the main international nuclear conventions. However one associated with “safeguards” has, to date, has proved controversial.
The purpose of the IAEA’s safeguard arrangements is to ensure that countries are honouring their legal obligations to only use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, not to manufacture nuclear weapons. Such assurance is sought through physical verification and having IAEA inspectors visit facilities and see for themselves that these obligations are being honoured. The importance of this arrangement was demonstrated in the case of Iran not allowing such inspections, resulting in sanctions being imposed on the country until an agreement was reached last year. The IAEA has now verified that Iran has fulfilled its obligations under the agreement and sanctions have been lifted. Saudi Arabia expressed its support for this agreement.
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The first stage of becoming subject to IAEA safeguards is for a country to sign up to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and conclude a safeguards agreement with the Agency. Saudi signed up to the NPT in 1988 and the Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement in 2009.
However, it has yet to sign the Additional Protocol, which is designed to fill a number of gaps in the safeguards framework and which would give the IAEA expanded rights of access to information and sites, as in the case of Iran. The Additional Protocol itself was introduced as a result of the Agency’s experience in Iraq and North Korea in the early 1990s, and is seen as key to a country being accepted as a nuclear energy state.
Bilateral Nuclear Co-Operation Agreements
As well as international treaties, it is also usual for countries to sign bilateral Nuclear Co-Operation Agreements (NCAs). In summary, these allow the trade of nuclear equipment and components to take place between the respective parties and ensure such material will only be used for peaceful purposes. Certain countries such as the US and the UK have yet to sign NCAs with Saudi Arabia, (known as 123 Agreements in the US), which means that nuclear companies in these countries are prevented from doing business. The sticking point here seems to be Saudi’s unwillingness to sign the Additional Protocol, but, given the announcement from the Cabinet last week, are we about to see a change of stance?
We await with interest if there will be any further clarification on what exactly the Cabinet statement will mean in practice.
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