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Study said to find Saudis may have enough uranium to make own nuclear fuel

Guardian cites report by Saudi, Chinese geologists, identifying sufficient amounts of the element to supply Gulf kingdom’s nascent nuclear program — and to export

Illustrative: A uranium mine (Alexey Dozmorov; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: A uranium mine (Alexey Dozmorov; iStock by Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia likely has sufficient uranium reserves to produce nuclear fuel domestically, according to a British newspaper report on Thursday.

Citing a study by Saudi and Chinese geologists, the Guardian said the 90,000 tons of uranium ore identified at three deposits in the Gulf kingdom could be enough for Saudi Arabia to fuel its nascent nuclear program and still have some to export.

The most promising reserve appeared to be near Neom, a planned smart city in the northwest of the country.

China has been assisting Saudi Arabia in developing a facility to extract yellowcake from uranium ore, which can be enriched into fuel for a nuclear weapon. Reports last month cited US officials expressing concern that Riyadh could be headed toward developing an atomic bomb.

The report viewed by the Guardian was prepared by the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology and China National Nuclear Corporation, along with the Saudi Geological Survey.

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, left, shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping before proceeding to their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, February 22, 2019. (Liu Weibing/Xinhua via AP)

According to the newspaper, China prospected at nine different sites in Saudi Arabia beginning in 2017 and ending last year. The report bragged that the project was completed swiftly in part because workers labored in scorching summer temperatures of up to 50°C (122°F).

“According to international common practice, it takes five to eight years to discover and estimate inferred resources of a uranium-thorium deposit; this project only lasted two years,” the report said.

The report also cited numerous challenges faced by the exploration team, including flooding, soft terrain and armed men near the Yemen border who interfered with drilling.

Bruce Riedel, a former senior CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, told the British daily the information indicated the Saudis were “aggressively pursuing the prerequisites” for a nuclear energy or weapons program, with a domestic source of uranium helping in its development.

Mark Hibbs, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, said: “If you are considering nuclear weapons development, the more indigenous your nuclear program is, the better. In some cases, foreign suppliers of uranium will require peaceful-use commitments from end users, so if your uranium is indigenous, you don’t have to be concerned about that constraint.”

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, while another trains technicians for uranium mining and extraction.

A report in Hebrew media last month said Israeli security and intelligence officials have reached out to their US counterparts to express concerns over the Saudi nuclear program.

Quoting an unnamed Israeli official, the Walla news site said the Prime Minister’s Office was treating the matter with high levels of sensitivity due to concerns about harming Israel’s unofficial ties with Saudi Arabia.

Israel views Riyadh 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 Bahrain and agree on a normalization deal, or at least encourage other Gulf nations to do so.

US President Donald Trump, center, with from left, Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump, and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, during the Abraham Accords signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

According to the Walla report, these factors have led to the Prime Minister’s Office instructing officials not to publicly comment on the matter.

“It’s pretty unclear to the Americans and the International Atomic Energy Agency what is going on there, and IAEA officials intend to check into this with the Saudis,” an Israeli official said.

The report said Saudi Arabia chose China for the project because Beijing would not require assurances that the nuclear capabilities would be for peaceful purposes only. However, the Saudis are thought to ultimately prefer to work together with Washington on the matter of nuclear power, especially given Beijing’s alignment with Tehran.

Saudi Arabia has never hidden its intention to become a nuclear power if Iran sets the precedent.

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.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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