On the 28th of March, it was widely reported that the U.S. Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, had approved six secret “Part 810” authorizations. These authorizations were granted to companies which are seeking to sell nuclear power technology and advice to Saudi Arabia.
The pursuit of nuclear power by the Saudi Arabian government is, in itself, relatively harmless. Research regarding nuclear energy has shown that it is one of the cleaner methods of generating power. This would be a welcome replacement for the nation; according to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia’s main source of energy generation is currently coming from oil-based power plants. By transitioning to nuclear energy, the government would be able to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, which is overwhelmingly beneficial for the planet. However, the secrecy surrounding these authorizations, as well as the risk of a nuclear arms race in the region, make this a cause for concern.
The first cause for concern is the secrecy surrounding these authorizations. Typically, the details of “Part 810” authorizations are released to the public. This means that the public is able to see exactly who is involved in deals regarding nuclear energy technology, and what the circumstances of the authorization are (is it purely technical advice being sold, or are the components necessary for nuclear energy generation involved?). However, in this recent scenario, Reuters reports that the companies involved requested that their requests be withheld from the public. This raises questions: who is involved, and why don’t they want to be identified? If the parties involved are concerned about any association with Saudi Arabia, then why are they partaking in this deal in the first case? What has been authorized in this case? Is this paving the way for the transferring of components to assist Saudi Arabia with construction of a nuclear reactor, or is this simply technical advice? It is this lack of information which becomes concerning.
The other concern is that this deal could lead to an escalation of tensions in the region. The pursuit of nuclear energy by itself can be seen as a noble goal. However, much of the infrastructure which is utilized for nuclear energy production can also be used for the production of nuclear weapons technology. Saudi Arabia is currently a non-proliferation state, but numerous comments made by the Saudi leadership in previous years have indicated that this status is entirely reliant on their rivals in the region. If the Saudi Arabian government believes that one of their rivals is pursuing nuclear weapons technology, then it would appear that they would also do so. This adds extra risk to an already unstable regional situation; the Trump Administration’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Iran, as well as its renewal of sanctions, places increased pressure on Saudi Arabia’s biggest rival. If either government believes that the other is pursuing nuclear armaments, it is possible that a nuclear arms race will be triggered. In a period of increased world tension, it is entirely unacceptable to allow this sort of risk to develop.
This current scenario presents a number of uncertainties. While the pursuit of nuclear energy would help to reduce Saudi Arabia’s reliance on fossil fuels, the risk of an arms race is one which is entirely unacceptable. Corporate reluctance to be identified in this situation is also concerning. This situation is not entirely unresolvable; if the companies that requested the secret authorizations identify themselves, it becomes possible for the public and international governments to be informed about these developments, and to take action if necessary.