Saudi Arabia’s energy minister says the country wants to enrich uranium for its nuclear power program.
This could complicate talks with the United States as uranium enrichment has been a sticking point between the two countries, especially since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that Saudia Arabia would develop nuclear weapons arms if rival Iran did.
Saudia Arabia said that it wants to use nuclear power to diversify its energy mix, but enrichment also opens up the possibility of military uses of uranium.
“We are proceeding with it cautiously…we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said, referring to a plan for its first two nuclear power reactors.
The prince went on to say that the kingdom wanted to go ahead with the full cycle of its nuclear program, including the production and enrichment of uranium for atomic fuel.
The plan is to start in 2020, with the United States, Russian, South Korean, Chinese, and French firms involved in preliminary talks about the multi-billion-dollar project.
Although atomic reactors need uranium enriched to around 5% purity, the same technology can also be used to enrich the heavy metal to higher, weapons-grade levels. Already Iran is progressing along this road.
Saudi Arabia has backed President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran after he withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear pact that curbed Iran’s disputed nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
For U.S. companies to be allowed to compete for Saudi Arabia’s project, Saudi Arabia would need to sign an accord on the peaceful use of nuclear technology with the United States, commonly known as a 123 agreement.
“It’s important for us, with regards to U.S. technology, we’re going to pursue a 123 agreement,” Dan Brouillette, Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, said.
“We would like to see a 123 agreement accompany any agreement to transfer U.S. technology or use U.S. technology in Saudi or any other place,” he continued.
According to reports, the discussions has been difficult as Saudi Arabia does not want to sign a deal that would rule out the possibility of enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel which can be potential paths to a bomb.
International concerns about the dual technology helped lead to the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and global powers. Under the deal Iran can enrich uranium to around the normal level needed for commercial power production. But in response to U.S. sanctions imposed since Washington withdrew from the deal in May last year, Iran has been breaching the limits it imposed on its atomic activities step by step. It is also noted that there have been suspicions that Iran had been clandestinely working on its nuclear weapons programme even during the agreement.
At this time, some believe that Saudi Arabia has been working with other nuclear States to acquire weapons tech and material.