US looking into claims of China-Saudi 'nuclear bomb' developments

US looking into claims of China-Saudi 'nuclear bomb' developments
Saudi Arabia is working with China on the development of its civilian nuclear power programme.
3 min read
06 August, 2020
Saudi Arabia is developing its own civilian nuclear programme [Getty]
US intelligence is looking into claims that China is assisting Saudi Arabia on the recent secretive expansion of the kingdom's nuclear programme, which could pave the way towards the development of nuclear weapons.

Reports emerged this week that Chinese entities were assisting Saudi Arabia on its path towards producing nuclear fuel. Experts say this could ultimately be diverted into a covert military nuclear programme in the future.

US intelligence analysed suspect collaboration between the two countries at an undeclared site in central Arabia, close to a solar-panel production area.

It is one of a number of recent constructions in the kingdom that have alarmed nuclear experts, including a site for the processing of yellowcake in the northwest of Saudi Arabia - a further step towards the development of nuclear fuel. 

While President Donald Trump has sought to work on Saudi Arabia's civilian nuclear programme, the recent reports have been a cause for alarm, The New York Times reported.

Saudi Arabia has not signed up to the same restrictions that the UAE agreed to during the construction of its own nuclear power plants.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also warned in 2018 that if Iran obtained nukes then Riyadh would do the same.

Analysts who spoke to The New York Times said that satellite images of desert buildings in central Saudi Arabia are similar to nuclear facilities built by China in Iran.

Robert Kelley, a former inspector for the atomic agency, told The New York Times that the International Atomic Energy Agency is unhappy about Riyadh's opaqueness towards "their existing programme and where it is going".

While he did not think that the central Saudi plant was anything out of the ordinary, he did believe Riyadh and Beijing might be working together on other covert activities.

"I am completely convinced that Saudi Arabia and China are actively cooperating on plans for uranium mining and yellowcake production," he said.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that China is working on a facility in northwest 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.

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