U.S. 'Scrutinizing' Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Program After Chinese Help

Saudi Arabia remains behind the UAE, which became the first Arab nation to open a nuclear power plant on Saturday

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File photo: Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, (MBS), in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, May 30, 2017.
File photo: Saudi Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman, (MBS), in Moscow's Kremlin, Russia, May 30, 2017. Credit: Pavel Golovkin/AP

Saudi Arabia, with Chinese help, has built a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday which cites Western officials with knowledge of the site. Saudi Arabia has long sought nuclear energy and was reportedly close to completion of building its first nuclear reactor in 2019.  

The Journal adds the facility “which hasn’t been publicly disclosed” is in northwest Saudi Arabia, far from population centers. The new facility reportedly “raised concern among U.S. and allied officials” that the Saudi nuclear program is moving ahead with the option of creating nuclear weapons still on the table. The New York Times also reported that U.S. intelligence agencies are "scrutinizing" the advancement of the Saudi nuclear program. 

In a statement to the Times, the state department said, “we routinely warn all our partners about the dangers of engagement with the P.R.C.’s civil nuclear business,” referring to the People’s Republic of China, “including the threats it presents of strategic manipulation and coercion, as well as technology theft. We strongly encourage all partners to work only with trusted suppliers who have strong nonproliferation standards.”

The statement also urged Saudi Arabia to sign an agreement with the United States “with strong nonproliferation protections that will enable Saudi and U.S. nuclear industries to cooperate.”

The United Arab Emirates became the first Arab nation over the weekend to open a nuclear power plant. The Barakah nuclear power plant in the Emirates’ far western desert near the border with Saudi Arabia reached what scientists called its “first criticality” on Friday. That’s when the nuclear chain reaction within the reactor is self-sustaining.

The nuclear reactor ultimately will generate electricity and be connected to the country’s power grid.

The $20 billion Barakah nuclear power plant was built by the Emirates with the help of South Korea. It’s the first nuclear power plant on the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. has praised the Emirates’ nuclear program for agreeing never to acquire enrichment or reprocessing capabilities, which prevents it from being able to make weapons-grade uranium. The U.S. says that’s a model agreement for other countries seeking nuclear power while also encouraging the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.

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