Saudi Arabia’s new energy minister said his country wants to pursue a “full cycle” nuclear program, which would entail the kingdom processing and enriching its own uranium.
The world’s top crude exporter has previously announced plans to spend $80 billion to build 16 nuclear reactors over the coming two decades as it diversifies energy.
“We are proceeding with it cautiously … we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said, according to a Reuters report of his statements at an energy conference in the United Arab Emirates.
Bin Salman’s remarks, which marked his debut since being named to one of the most important positions in the kingdom the previous day, have spooked nonproliferation experts, who warn such technology could allow Saudi Arabia to pursue a nuclear weapon amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US over Tehran’s program.
Dan Brouillette, a deputy US energy secretary who attended Monday’s event, said he hoped Saudi Arabia would instead choose to go with a so-called “123 Agreement” like the United Arab Emirates. The UAE choose to agree to strict inspections and a pledge never to pursue uranium enrichment and plutonium processing.
“Personally, I think that’s something we have to work out with them,” Brouillette told journalists. “I think it’s very important that we stick to the 123 Agreements. What they look like at the end is going to be a subject of negotiation, but as we move forward with US technology in particular, we are very much committed to finding an appropriate 123 with Saudi Arabia.”
The 123 Agreement to guarantee the peaceful use of nuclear technology is required under US law before any transfer of sensitive material.
The Associated Press reported in February that White House officials pushed a project to share nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia despite the objections of ethics and national security officials, according to a congressional report citing whistleblowers within the US administration.
In March, Reuters reported the US has already approved the sale of nuclear power technology to the Saudi kingdom.
Citing a copy of a document it had seen, the global news outlet said US Energy Secretary Rick Perry had granted six secret authorizations to companies to sell the know-how to the desert kingdom as part of a hoped-for broader deal on nuclear power.
The first Saudi nuclear project, being built by Argentina’s state-backed nuclear company INVAP, is a so-called low-power research reactor, or LPRR, that is generally used to train technicians.
In April the head of the IAEA said his agency was asking Saudi Arabia to agree to safeguards on nuclear material that could arrive by the end of the year for its first atomic reactor.