Fan as I am of nuclear power, I can hardly cheer to see the Bush administration helping Saudi Arabia build nuclear facilities, as Rep. Ed Markey complains in the Wall Street Journal today. Considering that you could cover 80 percent of the Kingdom with solar panels and not kill a single blade of grass, this seems to Markey a case of wildly misplaced priorities. A long excerpt follows . . .
If this is a good idea, why all the sound and fury over Iranian enrichment, and North Korean and Pakistani proliferation? Given the Bush Doctrine’s axiomatic hopes for Mideast democratization, why create a strategic imperative to help the House of Saud stand forever? Have we simply surrendered on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and are thus hoping to speed along a Sunni-state nuclear counterweight to Iran in the region? Is this wise? . . .
Last month, while the American people were becoming the personal ATMs of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in Saudi Arabia signing away an even more valuable gift: nuclear technology. In a ceremony little-noticed in this country, Ms. Rice volunteered the U.S. to assist Saudi Arabia in developing nuclear reactors, training nuclear engineers, and constructing nuclear infrastructure. While oil breaks records at $130 per barrel or more, the American consumer is footing the bill for Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions.
Saudi Arabia has poured money into developing its vast reserves of natural gas for domestic electricity production. It continues to invest in a national gas transportation pipeline and stepped-up exploration, building a solid foundation for domestic energy production that could meet its electricity needs for many decades. Nuclear energy, on the other hand, would require enormous investments in new infrastructure by a country with zero expertise in this complex technology.
Have Ms. Rice, Mr. Bush or Saudi leaders looked skyward? The Saudi desert is under almost constant sunshine. If Mr. Bush wanted to help his friends in Riyadh diversify their energy portfolio, he should have offered solar panels, not nuclear plants.
Saudi Arabia’s interest in nuclear technology can only be explained by the dangerous politics of the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, a champion and kingpin of the Sunni Arab world, is deeply threatened by the rise of Shiite-ruled Iran.
The two countries watch each other warily over the waters of the Persian Gulf, buying arms and waging war by proxy in Lebanon and Iraq. An Iranian nuclear weapon would radically alter the region’s balance of power, and could prove to be the match that lights the tinderbox. By signing this agreement with the U.S., Saudi Arabia is warning Iran that two can play the nuclear game.
In 2004, Vice President Dick Cheney said, “[Iran is] already sitting on an awful lot of oil and gas. No one can figure why they need nuclear, as well, to generate energy.” Mr. Cheney got it right about Iran. But a potential Saudi nuclear program is just as suspicious. For a country with so much oil, gas and solar potential, importing expensive and dangerous nuclear power makes no economic sense.
The Bush administration argues that Saudi Arabia can not be compared to Iran, because Riyadh said it won’t develop uranium enrichment or spent-fuel reprocessing, the two most dangerous nuclear technologies. At a recent hearing before my Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman shrugged off concerns about potential Saudi misuse of nuclear assistance for a weapons program, saying simply: “I presume that the president has a good deal of confidence in the King and in the leadership of Saudi Arabia.”
That’s not good enough. We would do well to remember that it was the U.S. who provided the original nuclear assistance to Iran under the Atoms for Peace program, before Iran’s monarch was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Such an uprising in Saudi Arabia today could be at least as damaging to U.S. security. . . .