"Saudi Arabia has constructed with Chinese help a facility for extracting uranium yellowcake from uranium ore, an advance in the oil-rich kingdom's drive to master nuclear technology, according to Western officials with knowledge of the site," according to the Wall Street Journal.
The WSJ investigative report on Tuesday identified the location based on intelligence sources and unnamed Western officials as in a desert area outside al-Ula in northwest Saudi Arabia.
"The facility, which hasn't been publicly disclosed, is in a sparsely populated area in Saudi Arabia's northwest and has raised concern among U.S. 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," WSJ said adding:
Even though Riyadh is still far from that point, the facility's exposure appears certain to draw concern in the U.S. 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."
The Saudi Energy Ministry issued a statement saying it "categorically denies" that it's built an extraction facility. However, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 "if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible." The Saudis maintain they are only in pursuit of a peaceful nuclear program, which happens to be Iran's same position as well.
US investigating Saudi-China nuclear development
Meanwhile, the New York Times reported Wednesday that American intelligence agencies are scrutinizing efforts by Saudi Arabia to build up its ability to produce nuclear fuel that could put the kingdom on a path to developing nuclear weapons.
Spy agencies in recent weeks circulated a classified analysis about the efforts underway inside Saudi Arabia, working with China, to build industrial capacity to produce nuclear fuel. The analysis has raised alarms that there might be secret Saudi-Chinese efforts to process raw uranium into a form that could later be enriched into weapons fuel, according to American officials, the NYT said adding:
"As part of the study, they have identified a newly completed structure near a solar-panel production area near Riyadh, the Saudi capital, that some government analysts and outside experts suspect could be one of a number of undeclared nuclear sites. Saudi officials have made no secret of their determination to keep pace with Iran, which has accelerated since President Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman pledged in 2018 that his kingdom would try to develop or acquire nuclear weapons if Iran continued its work toward a bomb."
The NYT also pointed out that last week, the House Intelligence Committee, led by Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, included a provision in the intelligence budget authorization bill requiring the administration to submit a report about Saudi efforts since 2015 to develop a nuclear program, a clear indication that the committee suspects that some undeclared nuclear activity is going on.
The report, the provision stated, should include an assessment of "the state of nuclear cooperation between Saudi Arabia and any other country other than the United States, such as the People's Republic of China or the Russian Federation."
What are Saudi Arabia's nuclear intentions?
In July 2019, the Washington Post wrote that for the present Saudi Arabia is focused on becoming what is known as a nuclear "hedger," that is, a country without a dedicated nuclear weapons program, but which can weaponize relatively quickly, thanks to an advanced enrichment and reprocessing capability " a status already achieved by Iran. Hedging permits a country to develop peaceful nuclear power that could be switched to military uses, while avoiding the financial and political costs of going for a full-scale nuclear military capability.
The Washington Post identified positive steps taken by Saudi Arabia in the previous few years to enter the nuclear power market, and to foster competition among potential suppliers. In 2015, as a first step toward achieving full nuclear fuel-cycle capability, Saudi Arabia acquired a research reactor from Argentina.
It then solicited bids for the supply of nuclear power reactors and an enrichment plant. In addition to Pakistan, countries such as France and South Korea began expressing an interest in selling nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, and by mid-2019, the US, Russia and China had apparently joined the bidding war. China, perhaps within its Belt and Road Initiative, won the commission to construct Saudi Arabia's uranium yellowcake facility.
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