Israeli defense and intelligence officials have expressed deepening concern to the Trump administration in Washington over a Saudi-Chinese nuclear project under construction in the desert near Riyadh, according to Axios.
According to a report published by The New York Times on August 6, 2020, the new nuclear facility, built with the assistance of China, is allegedly intended to produce yellowcake, a type of uranium concentrate powder. Yellowcake is produced during uranium processing after it has been mined, but before it is enriched or processed into commercial nuclear fuel. It looks like yellow granules, hence the term, “yellowcake.”
Two days prior to the Times article, The Wall Street Journal reported on the Saudi-Chinese nuclear project, but said there was no sign of any conversion facility or gas centrifuge plant to transform the yellowcake into UF6 (uranium hexaflouride) for use in future enrichment.
But there is a lot more going on than a simple concern with yellowcake.
There is a question about how many nuclear facilities — civilian or military — actually exist in the Saudi desert, and how many more are being built. There is a question about what Riyadh intends to do with them, now and in the future — and with whom. Finally, there is a question about what exactly has prompted all this activity on Saudi Arabia’s part — but that, at least, makes more sense: it is clear the drive to build a uranium mill to transform uranium ore into yellowcake and then into nuclear fuel is part of a program of deterrence aimed at Iran.
The kingdom has been searching its desert for uranium deposits for years; in a document published in 2019 entitled “Updates on Saudi National Atomic Energy Project,” posted by the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, the UN agency described a Saudi plan for building civilian reactions and fueling them through “localization” of uranium production. More than 10,000 square miles of Saudi territory has been scrutinized with the hopes of finding uranium — so far without success.
According to Robert Kelley, who served as director of nuclear inspections in Iraq for the IAEA in 1992 and in 2001, and who spoke with the New York Times, “The IAEA is unhappy with Saudi Arabia because they refuse to communicate about their existing program and where it is going.” There are a number of different nuclear facilities, it turns out, and none have been declared to the IAEA, which monitors compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. No one really knows what is going on in any of them.
Saudi Arabia is a party to the treaty, having signed on to the document decades ago.
Reuters reported in 2017 that Saudi Arabia had plans to extract uranium domestically as part of a nuclear power program, according to Neutron Bytes. At that time, the head of the government agency tasked with the nuclear plans did not reveal whether Saudi Arabia was also intending to enrich and reprocess uranium, steps leading to military use of the material. At that time, the discussion openly centered the country’s “first two nuclear reactors,” with an eye toward “self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel.”
Riyadh said at that time that it plans to build some 17.6 gigawatts of nuclear capacity by 2032, the equivalent of about 17 reactors.