The US newspaper reported that the processing facility, which has not been publicly disclosed, is in Saudi Arabia’s northwest region and is raising concerns from US officials. It said the main concern is that as the kingdom moves ahead with developing a commercial nuclear programme, it is keeping the door open for the creation of nuclear weapons.
Press reports said the Saudi energy ministry has “categorically denied” that it has built a uranium ore facility in the area described by the western officials. However, the reports quoted Saudi officials as saying that the extraction of uranium is a key component of the kingdom's economic diversification strategy, which looks to move away from its dependence on oil exports.
The energy ministry confirmed Saudi Arabia has a contract with China on uranium exploration in certain areas.
Yellowcake is a milled form of uranium ore produced by chemically processing uranium ore into a fine powder. With additional processing, it can power a commercial nuclear energy plant. At very high enrichment levels, it can even fuel a nuclear weapon.
Saudi Arabia does not have any commercial nuclear plants, but has expressed ambitions to build around 17 GW of nuclear energy after 2040.
In April 2019 press reports said Saudi Arabia plans to issue a tender this year to construct its first two commercial nuclear power reactors and is discussing the project with US and other potential suppliers.
The world’s top oil exporter wants to diversify its energy mix, adding nuclear power so it can free up more crude for export. But the plans are facing scrutiny in the US because of potential military uses for the technology.
In January 2019 Saudi Arabia said it had received offers from five countries to build the first two plants. It said the countries were Russia, China, the US, France and South Korea.
Earlier this year Saudi Arabia and South Korea signed an updated agreement to create a joint venture for the construction of a low-power small modular nuclear reactor in the Middle East kingdom.