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Saudi Arabia has enough uranium near NEOM to produce nuclear fuel, report says

Saudi Arabia could be on a path towards a nuclear weapons programme [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 September, 2020

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Experts fear the Kingdom could move forward with a nuclear weapons programme.
Saudi Arabia could be on its way towards a nuclear weapons programme, after it was revealed that it has enough uranium ore reserves to produce domestic nuclear fuel, according to a report prepared by Chinese geologists.

The report was prepared by the Beijing Research Institute of Uranium Geology (BRIUG) and the China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC), in conjunction with the Saudi Geological Survey.

Geologists identified reserves that could produce over 90,000 tonnes of uranium from three deposits, located near the site for the controversial NEOM megacity development, the survey report seen by the Guardian revealed.

The reserves have not been confirmed and the region will need to be explored further to confirm them, however such reserves could be the first step in the kingdom moving towards domestic uranium production.

Doing so opens the country to a potential atomic weapons programme.

"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," said Mark Hibbs, senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Experts revealed it normally takes "five to eight years to discover and estimate inferred resources of a uranium-thorium deposit." Geologists accelerated work over the course of two summers. 

Over 30,000 square kilometres were explored at the Saudi Arabian shield site, which is similar to "shields" in Canada and Australia.

Satellite imagery shows mining – which is the next step – has not yet begun.

"Given that the candidate sites are quite far from the location of the alleged uranium mill, we are forced to question reports that a mill exists at all," Ian Stewart, head of the Centre for Nonproliferation Studies CNS Washington office told the publication.

"We consider it unlikely that a mill would be built without a domestic source of ore. And we have to assume that the only sources of ore are the ones identified in these documents. If governments have evidence of a facility, they need to provide more details for us to conclude the reports are accurate."

China and Saudi Arabia’s nuclear programme

China is helping Saudi Arabia develop its nuclear facilities amid fears recent advances are a sign that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's chilling threat that the kingdom could develop nuclear weapons might become true.

The Wall Street Journal reported in August that China is working on the development of a facility in Saudi Arabia that could extract uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, a huge shift in Riyadh's well-publicised civilian nuclear programme.

In a highly enriched state, Yellowcake can be used in the development of nuclear weapons.

The facility is believed to be located near the northwest Saudi city of Ula and was built with the assistance of two Chinese entities.

Saudi Arabia and China signed an agreement in 2012 on civilian nuclear energy, but the US under President Donald Trump has also discussed with Riyadh the sale of nuclear technology and reactors.

US arms sales negotiators have said Riyadh must first agree to safeguards in order for such transfers to go ahead but Riyadh appears to have turned to Beijing to bypass these restrictions.

"The reason we do nuclear technology development deals with countries is so that they will commit to the Gold Standard and commit to a working relationship with the United States. The Saudis are trying to have it both ways, and we can’t allow them to get away with that," Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.) told the WSJ.

"My guess is that one of the reasons to go to the Chinese is that it doesn't come with the same controls that coordination with the United States does," Murphy added.

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