IAEA in wide-ranging talks with Saudi Arabia on tougher nuclear checks

IAEA Director General Grossi arrives for a news conference in Vienna
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi, wearing a protective mask, arrives for a news conference during a board of governors meeting at the IAEA headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 14, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

September 14, 2020

VIENNA (Reuters) – The U.N. nuclear watchdog is in wide-ranging talks with Saudi Arabia about tougher supervision of the kingdom’s nuclear activities, the agency said on Monday, part of a wider effort to eliminate a “weakness” in the global inspections regime.

Saudi Arabia has a nascent nuclear programme that it wants to expand to eventually include proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment. It is unclear where its ambitions end, since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 it would develop nuclear weapons if regional rival Iran did.

Riyadh has yet to fire up its first nuclear reactor, allowing its programme to still be monitored under the Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that exempts less advanced states from many reporting obligations and inspections.

“We are in conversation with them. They are interested in developing nuclear energy, for peaceful purposes of course,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said when asked about verification in Saudi Arabia.

“So it is obvious that when they upgrade their activities including by the introduction of nuclear material in the kingdom, then we will have to have a stronger safeguards system. And nothing makes me think that this is not going to be the case.”

If Saudi Arabia were to introduce nuclear material into the research reactor in Riyadh that is near completion, it would void the SQP and its exemptions from regular safeguards.

The sides are also discussing an extra agreement known as the Additional Protocol that provides for tougher checks including snap inspections at undeclared locations, Grossi said.

Asked whether Riyadh should sign up to the Additional Protocol, he said: “We are discussing everything.”

The talks are part of a push to get 31 states with early versions of the SQP to rescind them or switch to upgraded texts.

“This is essential to address a weakness in the IAEA safeguards system,” Grossi said in a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by Timothy Heritage)