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Head of IAEA says it is helping Saudi Arabia, Egypt with nuclear power

Nuclear watchdog chief reveals cooperation at Saudi conference; Riyadh’s energy minister last month said it intends to exploit large uranium ore deposits

Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks during a press conference in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. (Michael Gruber/AP)
Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Rafael Mariano Grossi speaks during a press conference in Vienna, Austria, on December 17, 2021. (Michael Gruber/AP)

International Atomic Energy Agency head Rafael Grossi said Wednesday that his organization was helping Saudi Arabia and Egypt to develop nuclear power, Reuters reported.

Grossi spoke at a conference in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told the Future Minerals Summit in Riyadh in January that the country intended to use its large deposits of uranium ore to develop nuclear power.

“Let me be very specific about it, we do have a huge amount of uranium resources that we would like to exploit and we will be doing it in the most transparent way, we will be bringing in partners,” Abdulaziz told the conference on January 12, according to the report.

He said the country would soon publish details of its energy strategy, including green energy solutions.

Saudi Arabia is reportedly already working on nuclear technologies with China.

Israel is wary of Saudi plans to develop a nuclear program and expressed those concerns to US security and intelligence officials in August 2020, the Walla news site reported at the time.

Quoting an unnamed Israeli official, the report said the Prime Minister’s Office, under then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was treating the matter with a high levels of sensitivity due to concerns about harming Israel’s unofficial ties with the kingdom.

Israel views Saudi Arabia as a strategic partner, particularly in combating mutual foe Iran and its proxies, and Jerusalem hopes the kingdom will follow the lead of the United Arab Emirates and agree on a normalization deal, or at least encourage other Gulf nations to do so.

The UAE already operates a nuclear power plant to produce electricity.

Both the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times in 2020 cited US intelligence officials as saying they were worried about Riyadh possibly heading toward nuclear weapons capability after the kingdom, aided by China, constructed a facility to extract uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, which can be enriched into fuel for a nuclear weapon.

The Saudis began working on various nuclear energy projects more than a decade ago; one of them aims to construct 16 nuclear reactors by 2040, another trains technicians for uranium mining and extractions.

Saudi Arabia has never hidden its intention to become a nuclear power if Iran sets the precedent. Iran’s nuclear program is the focus of intense ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive a 2015 agreement with world powers that lifted sanctions from Iran in return for curbs on its program to prevent it from obtaining nuclear weapons. The US pulled out of the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of action in 2018 and reapplied sanctions. Iran responded by dropping some of its own commitments, notably to limit uranium enrichment. Though Iran claims it has no goal of producing nuclear weapons, experts warn that its current activities are bringing it close to the threshold needed to make bombs.

Israel, which is believed to have a nuclear arsenal, has always actively opposed efforts by other states in the region to acquire non-conventional weaponry.

Covert ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia have reportedly been warming in recent years. The shift in policy has reportedly been led by Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who sees Israel as a strategic partner in the fight against Iranian influence in the region.

Egypt has also for decades been looking at nuclear power and has signed agreements for cooperation with Russia to build a power plant but the project has not taken off.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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