Western officials say Saudi Arabia has constructed with Chinese help
a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore.
Saudi Arabia has constructed with Chinese help a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, Western officials with knowledge of the site told The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday.
The facility, which hasn’t been publicly disclosed, is in a sparsely populated area in Saudi Arabia’s northwest and has raised concern among US and allied officials that the kingdom’s nascent nuclear program is moving ahead and that Riyadh is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons.
Even though Riyadh is still far from that point, the facility’s exposure appears certain to draw concern in the US Congress, where a bipartisan group of lawmakers has expressed alarm about Saudi nuclear energy plans and about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2018 vow that “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
It is also likely to cause consternation in Israel, where officials have warily monitored Saudi Arabia’s nuclear work.
The Saudi Energy Ministry said in a statement it “categorically denies” having built a uranium ore facility in the area described by some of the Western officials, adding that mineral extraction—including uranium—is a key part of the country’s economic diversification strategy.
The Saudi statement said the kingdom has contracted with the Chinese on uranium exploration in Saudi Arabia in certain areas. A spokesman declined to elaborate on the ministry’s statement.
“Yellowcake” is a milled form of uranium ore which occurs naturally in Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries such as Jordan. It is produced by chemically processing uranium ore into a fine powder. It takes multiple additional steps and technology to process and enrich uranium sufficiently for it to power a civil nuclear energy plant. At very high enrichment levels, uranium can fuel a nuclear weapon.
Saudi Arabia has not kept its nuclear ambitions secret, but promised that its nuclear program will be used to supply domestic electricity, enabling the country to export more of its oil.
However, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman warned in 2018 that “without a doubt” if Iran develops nuclear weapons, “we will follow suit as soon as possible.”
Last year, the US approved the sale of nuclear technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia.
Israel has requested that the Americans remove all the nuclear fuel used from Saudi Arabia so that it would not be reprocessed.
The Chinese embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment. A State Department representative declined to say whether Washington has raised the issue with Riyadh, but said the US has warned all its partners about the danger of engagement with China’s civilian nuclear establishment.