RIYADH (Dispatches) – Saudi Arabia, with help from China, has built a facility for the extraction of uranium yellowcake, a potential precursor to fuel for a nuclear reactor, in a remote desert location near the small city of Al Ula, the Wall Street Journal newspaper reported citing Western officials with knowledge of the site.
The facility, which has not been publicly acknowledged, has raised concern that the kingdom’s nascent nuclear program is moving ahead, and Riyadh is keeping open an option to develop nuclear weapons, according to the report.
Disclosure of the yellowcake processing facility is likely to elevate concern in the U.S. Congress about Saudi nuclear ambitions and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s 2018 threats to build a nuclear bomb.
The Saudi Energy Ministry "categorically” denied to the Wall Street Journal the country has built a uranium ore milling facility, but acknowledged contracting with Chinese entities for uranium exploration within Saudi Arabia.
The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to a request by the Wall Street Journal for comment.
Yellowcake is processed from naturally occurring uranium ore and can be further enriched to create fuel for nuclear power plants and, at very high levels of enrichment, nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia’s has signed agreements with China National Nuclear Corp and China Nuclear Engineering Group Corp following a 2012 pact between Riyadh and Beijing to cooperate on the development of nuclear energy.
The Saudis have raised concerns about a potential nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf region by pressing ahead with construction of a research reactor and inviting companies to bid on building two civilian nuclear power reactors without agreeing to oversight and inspection by the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency.
A U.S. congressional committee issued a report in May 2019 warning the administration of President Donald Trump was allowing U.S. companies to offer Saudi Arabia nuclear technologies without first obtaining non-proliferation guarantees the know-how would not be used to eventually produce a weapon.