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.
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.
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.”
It is also likely to cause consternation in Israel, where officials have warily monitored Saudi Arabia’s nuclear work.The Saudi Energy Ministry said in a statement it “categorically denies” having built a uranium ore facility in the area described by some of the Western officials, adding that mineral extraction—including uranium—is a key part of the country’s economic diversification strategy.
The Saudi statement said the kingdom has contracted with the Chinese on uranium exploration in Saudi Arabia in certain areas. A spokesman declined to elaborate on the ministry’s statement. Saudi Arabia has no known nuclear-weapons program, operating nuclear reactors or capacity to enrich uranium. But it says it wants to acquire nuclear plants that Saudi authorities say will generate power and reduce its reliance on oil, its principal export.
Information about the yellowcake facility has been tightly held within U.S. and allied governments, the officials said, and some details couldn’t be learned—including whether it has begun operations. The site doesn’t violate international agreements the Saudis have signed, experts on nuclear nonproliferation said.