Saudi Arabia to extract its own uranium for ‘self-sufficient’ nuclear power
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With Saudi Arabia’s nuclear power programme stepping up a gear, the country has announced plans to extract its own uranium domestically.
Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, the head of the agency that looks after the country’s nuclear plans, said that setting up an extraction operation would make the most sense from an economic perspective.
Last month it was revealed that Saudi Arabia would soon launch a tendering process for its first civil nuclear reactors, making it the second Arab nation to turn to nuclear power.
Although the country is thought to hold 18 per cent of the world’s total crude oil reserves, the move is seen as a way to hedge its bets for the future as the first stirrings of an international shift away from fossil fuels begins.
Yamani announced the plans in a speech at an international nuclear power conference in Abu Dhabi, although he did not say whether the extracted uranium would be enriched and reprocessed, a potentially contentious move as it opens up the possibility of using the material for military reasons.
Saudi Arabia is not currently known to have a nuclear weapons program and from an official and public standpoint remains an opponent of nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
However, strategy papers leaked in 2003 showed that the government was looking into a nuclear weapons programme or allying itself with a power that had one.
The country is currently the world’s top oil exporter and says it wants to tap atomic power for solely peaceful purposes in order to diversify its energy supply and will award a construction contract for its first two nuclear reactors by the end of 2018.
“Regarding the production of uranium in the kingdom, this is a programme which is our first step towards self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel,” Yamani told a conference organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). “We utilise the uranium ore that has been proven to be economically efficient.”
Atomic reactors need uranium enriched to around 5 per cent purity, but the same technology in this process can also be used to enrich the heavy metal to higher, weapons-grade levels.
This issue has been at the heart of Western and regional concerns about the nuclear work of Iran, Saudi Arabia’s foe, and led to the 2015 deal in which Iran agreed to freeze the programme for 15 years for sanctions relief.
On Monday, IAEA chief Yukiya Amano said Iran was complying with the nuclear deal signed with world powers and which US President Donald Trump has called into question.
Under the agreement, Iran can enrich uranium to 3.67 per cent purity, around the normal level needed for commercial power-generation.
Last week, Mohammed bin Salman, the 32-year old Saudi Crown Prince, announced the “Neom” project, which aims to build an independent, liberal, high-tech megacity in the country.