US expert says images show first Saudi nuclear reactor

Activation of civilian reactor said to be a year away, as Saudis keep eye on neighboring Iran’s nuclear program

Illustrative: Construction site of new nuclear power plant. (Vladimir Zapletin; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Construction site of new nuclear power plant. (Vladimir Zapletin; iStock by Getty Images)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A nuclear technology expert said Thursday Google satellite images show Saudi Arabia is about a year away from completing the construction of its first nuclear reactor.

Robert Kelley said the construction so far appears to be very small in size, indicating the reactor is intended for research purposes.

Still, Kelley says before the kingdom can insert nuclear fuel into the reactor, it would have to abide by an agreement that requires inspections by the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Kelley, a veteran of the US Department of Energy now based in Vienna, was first to identify the images of the reactor site in Riyadh at the King Abdulaziz City of Science and Technology.

US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 20, 2017. (AP/Evan Vucci)

He said the Saudi reactor is being built by the Argentinian government-owned company INVAP.

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has warned that the Saudis will pursue nuclear weapons if their arch-rival Iran obtains them.

The London-based World Nuclear Association (WNA) says Saudi Arabia plans to construct two large nuclear power reactors and several smaller reactors.

According to the WNA, the international organization of commercial global nuclear industry, the Saudis have been working on nuclear power plans since 2010 when they declared “atomic energy is essential to meet the Kingdom’s growing requirements for energy.”

Last week, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the government has given the green light to American companies to work on six nuclear projects in Saudi Arabia, despite lawmakers’ worries that the kingdom could seek weapons.

Perry confirmed that the Trump administration approved six applications to do initial nuclear work in Saudi Arabia and two in Jordan.

Perry, who said the Energy Department approved 37 of the 65 applications it received globally since 2017, promised the United States was committed to ensuring the Saudis do not reprocess spent fuel to make nuclear weapons.

“What I’m really concerned about, senator, is that if the United States is not the partner with Saudi Arabia, (or) for that matter Jordan,” Perry said, “they will go to Russia and China for their civil nuclear technology.”

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear power agency head Dr. Khaled Al Sultan (right) and Mikhail Chudakov, IAEA Deputy Director General in the Saudi capital Riyadh, January 22, 2019. (T. Stott/IAEA)

Saudi Arabia has been working with the IAEA on their civilian nuclear program, with the nuclear watchdog agency issuing a status report in January on the kingdom’s infrastructure development for a nuclear power.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has made significant progress in the development of its nuclear power infrastructure,” IAEA Deputy Director General Mikhail Chudakov noted in the report.

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