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Wed 3 Apr 2019 02:31 PM

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Saudi Arabia faces nuclear delays without tighter monitoring

Plans to start the kingdom's first research reactor later this year can't move ahead without new deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency

Saudi Arabia faces nuclear delays without tighter monitoring
It’s the second time in a month officials in Vienna have reminded Saudi Arabia that it needs to follow stricter international rules before delving deeper into its ambitious nuclear programme.

Work on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme, already subject to US investigation, could face delays because the kingdom has yet to adopt the international monitoring rules needed before it can generate power.

Plans to start the kingdom’s first research reactor later this year, a unit sold by Argentina’s state-owned INVAP that will be used to train Saudi engineers, can’t move ahead until new surveillance arrangements have been sealed with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“Saudi Arabia will have to move to a full scope comprehensive safeguards agreement with subsidiary arrangements before the unit is fueled,” Argentina’s envoy to the IAEA Rafael Mariano Grossi said in response to questions.

It’s the second time in a month officials in Vienna have reminded Saudi Arabia that it needs to follow stricter international rules before delving deeper into its ambitious nuclear programme.

Focus on the programmerose after a US Congressional investigation opened into the potentially illegal transfer of sensitive technologies to the kingdom. That probe was joined this week by the Government Accountability Office, the federal watchdog looking into authorisations granted to US companies pursing nuclear projects in Saudi Arabia.

While the US focuses on whether Saudi Arabia adopts a so-called gold-standard agreement in return for assistance - foregoing nuclear technologies that could also be used for weapons - the kingdom’s deal with Argentina shows there are accounting gaps at a more fundamental level that need to be filled, said Sharon Squassoni, a George Washington University nonproliferation researcher and former diplomat.

“The fuel isn’t going to be supplied until it has a strong safeguards agreement in place,” she said in an interview. “Once they cross that threshold of needing fuel, it has to be in place.”

In the rarefied world of nuclear monitoring, the IAEA is responsible for sending hundreds of inspectors around the world to look after and maintain a vast network of cameras, seals and sensors. Their job is to account for gram levels of enriched uranium, ensuring that the key ingredient needed for nuclear power isn’t diverted to weapons.

Inspector access in Saudi Arabia is currently restricted because its programmeis developing “based on an old text” of safeguard rules, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano said last month. His agency is encouraging the kingdom to rescind those old rules and adopt a so-called additional protocol - the most stringent inspection guidelines available.

Neither the IAEA nor Saudi Arabia’s mission to the agency responded to phone calls and emails seeking comment. Amano is scheduled to hold meetings in Washington this week.

Construction of the INVAP reactor is nearing completion at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh, according to Argentina’s Grossi. The unit will be fueled with uranium enriched to a purity well short of levels in weapons. Saudi Arabia’s Zamil Industrial Investment Co manufactured the steel reactor vessel.

The 2013 deal between INVAP and the kingdom opened the door to potentially lucrative new business for the debt-strapped South American country, which has been exporting research reactors for decades while also developing new modular power units. Those so-called Small Modular Reactors are a focal point of the kingdom’s nuclear ambitions, which aim for some 3.2 gigawatts of atomic power by 2030, according to an IAEA briefing given by Saudi regulators.

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