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Saudi Arabia looks to enrich domestic uranium for nuclear programme

Saudi Arabia, September 10, 2019

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is keen to draw on its domestic uranium deposits to develop a nuclear power industry, according to its new energy minister.

“We’re fortunate enough to have a lot of uranium resource - 5 per cent of the world resources. We want to go through the full resources, producing uranium, using uranium. We’re interested in making sure our energy mix is comprehensive,” Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman told delegates at the World Energy Congress in Abu Dhabi.

“We are proceeding with it cautiously ... we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors,” he added.

Saudi Arabia, which has been looking at alternative sources of power such as wind and solar to free up its oil barrels for export, has been looking to add atomic power capacity to generate electricity. The kingdom has looked at adding 17 Gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2040. It is looking to bring two reactors with a combined capacity of 3.2GW online within the next decade.

The kingdom recently decoupled its energy ministry from its industry and mineral resources portfolio to allow for greater development of its mining industry.

The new industry and mineral resources ministry is expected to begin functioning independently from the beginning of next year.

Meanwhile, US deputy secretary of energy Dan Brouillette said Washington would pursue a '123 agreement' regarding the sale of US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.

A 123 agreement refers to a section within the US Atomic Energy Act of 1954, which mandates a pact for co-operation as a prerequisite for any nuclear deals between Washington and another government.

“We’d like to see see a 123 agreement to accompany any agreement to transfer nuclear technology,” Mr Brouilette said.

'We have been engaged in this conversation for some time on behalf of the State Department because of the bilateral relations we have. We’re going to assist them [State Department] and provide them with technical advice,” he added.

The US has signed 123 agreements with a number of other nuclear powers such as India, where the country is mandated to place permanent safeguards on its civil nuclear facilities.

US concerns on Saudi Arabia stem from statements in 2018 that it would develop atomic weapons should Iran develop capabilities to enrich military-grade uranium in the future. The 123 accord looks to contain reprocessing of nuclear fuel, so that plutonium extracted from fissile material cannot be used to manufacture atomic weapons.

Apart from Iran and Israel, in the Middle East the UAE has developed capabilities for atomic power through the development of the Barakah nuclear power programme, which has tested and integrated three reactors to the grid so far. Construction of the $25 billion (Dh91bn) facility began in 2011, with electricity set to be generated late this year or early next. The UAE, which is the third-largest producer within Opec, aims to diversify its mix to generate 6 per cent of power from nuclear sources by 2050.