Saudi Arabia could embark on nuclear weapons programme with domestically mined uranium: report

Confidential reports by Chinese scientists working in Saudi Arabia have intensified concerns about a possible nuclear weapons programme.

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Saudi Arabia most likely has sufficient uranium ore reserves that can be mined leading to domestic production of nuclear fuel, according to confidential documents seen by the Guardian.

Details of the stocks are contained in reports prepared for the kingdom by Chinese geologists, who are aiding Riyadh at a tremendous speed as part of a nuclear energy cooperation agreement. The disclosure of uranium reserves will intensify concerns about Riyadh’s interest in an atomic weapons programme.

Over 90,000 tonnes of uranium according to experts

The survey report by Chinese and Saudi scientists has identified reserves having a production capacity of over 90,000 tonnes of uranium from three major deposits in the centre and northwest. Further exploration is needed to confirm the existence of the reserves and calculate cost of extraction.

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The 2019 survey suggests that the reserves could potentially provide Saudi Arabia with both fuel for the reactors it wants to build, and surplus for export. However, the Guardian on its own could not verify the authenticity of the report.

“If some of these became actually viable deposits – and there’s no way of knowing whether that’s possible or not – the actual amounts are probably going to be well in excess of what a power plant, or a few power plants would need,” said Prof Kip Jeffrey, head of Camborne school of mines at the University of Exeter.

According to experts if Saudi Arabia manages to domestically mine sufficient uranium, instead of relying on foreign parties, the kingdom could one day embark on its own weapons programme.

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“If you are considering nuclear weapons development, the more indigenous your nuclear program is, the better. In some cases, foreign suppliers of uranium will require peaceful-use commitments from end users, so if your uranium is indigenous, you don’t have to be concerned about that constraint,” said Mark Hibbs, senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Saudi nuclear ambitions spark concerns in the international community

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions have become a cause for concern in the US and among other allies but the Kingdom is committed to matching Iran’s nuclear capabilities. International concern over the matter persists as Saudi Arabia continues to avoid inspections and exhibits zero transparency over the Kingdom’s nuclear activities. “We are in conversation with them. They are interested in developing nuclear energy, for peaceful purposes of course,” IAEA chief Rafael Grossi.

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Beijing started work in the Saudi Kingdom in 2017 and finished at the end of last year, its interests in the Kingdom’s use of nuclear energy are both diplomatic and commercial. “According to international common practice, it takes five to eight years to discover and estimate inferred resources of a uranium-thorium deposit; this project only lasted two years,” the report said, referring to another radioactive element often found alongside uranium.

The internationally respected Geological Survey of Finland (GTK) supervised some of the exploration raising credibility of the reports findings. Analysts at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) held there were no signs in satellite images that mining had yet begun in the areas identified by Chinese and Saudi scientists.

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“It’s obviously important to monitor those sites, as that would give us a clear indication that Saudi Arabia was moving forward with uranium mining,” said Ian Stewart, head of the CNS Washington office. According to recent US reports Saudis have established a uranium processing mill, a vital step required to make fuel for nuclear reactors or weapons.

GVS News Desk with additional input by other sources

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