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 this week 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.
Although the kingdom is still a long-way from weaponising uranium, the report will likely spark fears in the US that Riyadh is working towards obtaining a nuclear deterrent.
This development may be a “longer-term hedge against a nuclear Iran”, Ian Stewart, of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies told the WSJ.
“[It is] another step in the direction of having an indigenous uranium enrichment programme.”
Prince Mohammed warned in 2018 “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible”, sparking fears in US Congress about Saudi’s nuclear programme.
The new reports of a yellowcake facility could lead to further scrutiny from Congress of American companies working with Riyadh in this area and other US assistance.
Saudi Arabia insists its nuclear programme is peaceful and part of plans to diversify its economy in order to free up oil for export.
The energy ministry said in a statement that it “categorically denies” having built the ore facilities in the area described, but did say that a Chinese company had been contracted for uranium exploration in the kingdom, the WSJ reported.
“Where is the transparency? If you claim your programme is peaceful, why not show what you have?” Olli Heinonen, the former deputy director of the International Atomic Energy Agency told the WSJ.