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Saudi Arabia wants to enrich uranium for nuclear power, says energy minister

Move opens up the possibility of military uses of the material, the issue at the heart of concerns over Iran's atomic work
Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman was appointed Saudi Arabia's energy minister on Sunday (AFP)

Saudi Arabia wants to enrich uranium in the future to fuel its planned nuclear power programme, its new energy minister said on Monday, a sensitive step that could complicate US companies' involvement in the plan.

The world's top oil exporter has said it wants to use the metal to diversify its energy mix, but uranium enrichment also opens up the possibility of military uses of the material, the issue at the heart of Western and regional concerns over Iran's atomic work.

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"We are proceeding with it cautiously... we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors," Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said, referring to a plan to issue a tender for the kingdom's first two nuclear power reactors.

Bin Salman, who was appointed on Sunday, told an energy conference in Abu Dhabi that ultimately the kingdom wanted to go ahead with the full cycle of the nuclear programme, including the production and enrichment of uranium for fuel.

The tender is expected in 2020, with US, Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms involved in preliminary talks about the multi-billion-dollar project, the Reuters news agency reported.

'Alarming development'

The issue of uranium enrichment has been a sticking point with Washington, especially after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 that the kingdom would develop nuclear arms if regional rival Iran were to.

Speaking to Middle East Eye earlier this year, Ali Bakeer, a Turkey-based political analyst, said: "A nuclear Saudi Arabia means nuclear proliferation in the most unstable and volatile region of the world. 

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"Given the reckless leadership in Riyadh, this is an alarming development for small states in the Gulf in particular, which might either seek a nuclear umbrella from great powers or consider constructing parallel deterrence capabilities of their own if they could afford it."

Saudi Arabia has backed US President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran after he withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear pact that curbed Iran's disputed nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

In order for US companies to compete for Saudi Arabia's project, Riyadh would normally need to sign an accord on the peaceful use of nuclear technology with Washington, under the United States Atomic Energy Act.

Saudi officials have said they would not sign a deal that would deprive the kingdom of the possibility of enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel in the future - both potential paths to a bomb.

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