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Saudi Arabia unveils uranium enrichment plan as US seeks nuclear deal

UNITED STATES, WASHINGTON (OBSERVATORY) — Saudi Arabia wants to enrich uranium for its nuclear power program, the energy minister said on Monday, which could hold talks with Washington on a nuclear deal and the role of US companies.

The issue of uranium enrichment was a sticking point with Washington, especially after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 that the kingdom would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did so.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, says it wants to use nuclear energy to diversify its energy mix, but uranium enrichment also opens the door for military use.

“We are proceeding cautiously,” Prince Abdul Aziz bin Salman told a conference in Abu Dhabi, referring to a plan to bid for the kingdom’s first two nuclear power reactors.

He told an energy conference in Abu Dhabi that Riyadh was ultimately seeking to advance the full cycle of the nuclear program, including the production and enrichment of uranium for nuclear fuel, and this may include investment in uranium stock in order to achieve this goal.

The bid is expected in 2020, while US, Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French companies are in preliminary talks on the multi-billion-dollar project.

Although nuclear reactors need to enrich uranium at a purity of about 5 percent, the technology itself can be used to enrich the heavy metal at a higher rate for weapons.

Saudi Arabia backed US President Donald Trump’s campaign to impose “maximum pressure” on Iran after announcing a US withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal that curbed Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.

In order for US companies to compete for the Saudi project, Riyadh will have to sign an agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear technology with Washington.

A senior US official at the conference said the United States wanted to sign the agreement, known as the 123 agreement.

“As far as US technology is concerned, we will seek the 123 agreement,” said Deputy Energy Secretary Dan Prolet.

“We would like the 123 agreement to accompany any agreement to transfer US technology or use US technology in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.”

Reuters has said progress in the discussions is difficult because Saudi Arabia wants not to sign a deal that could deny it the possibility of enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel, both potential ways to build a bomb.

International concerns about dual-use technology have helped reach the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers. Under the deal, Iran can enrich uranium to a level close to the natural limit necessary for commercial energy production.

But in response to US sanctions imposed since Washington withdrew from the deal in May last year, Iran is gradually breaking its restrictions on its nuclear activities.

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