Saudi Arabia Reported to Acquire Uranium Mill Technology from China to Make Yellowcake

yellowcake_uranium_090418The New York Times reported on August 6, 2020, that a U.S. government classified intelligence analysis includes an assessment that Saudi Arabia, working with China, was building a facility to convert uranium ore into yellowcake.

This is an intermediate step for producing either commercial nuclear fuel (3-5% U235) or weapons grade highly enriched uranium (80% or more U235).

The newspaper article includes photos of what it says are several undeclared nuclear sites. The Times article follows by two days a report in the Wall Street Journal that said the facilities are part of a joint Saudi Chinese program to support various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle. However, at this time there is no evidence that Saudi Arabia has a gas centrifuge plant nor a conversion facility to turn the yellowcake into uranium hexafluoride (UF6) for use in a future enrichment plant.

nuclear fuel cycle

The Nuclear Fuel Cycle: Image: DOE/EIA

The efforts of the New York Times to get a government official to comment on the record either about the classified analysis or the WSJ article were met with silence. However, the State Department told the newspaper on 8/5/20 that the U.S. attaches “great importance” to continued compliance by the Saudis to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Negotiations by the U.S. have been at a standstill for the past year and a half to get an agreement with the Saudis under Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act with the U.S. similar to the one signed by the United Arab Emirates. That agreement bans uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

The newspaper had better luck getting a statement from Thomas A. Countryman, a former state department official who worked on nonproliferation issues from 2011-2017. He told the newspaper, “They see a value in having a latent capability to produce their own fuel and perhaps their own weapons.”

In other words, the commitment to build a uranium mill to turn uranium ore into yellowcake is part of a program of deterrence pointed at Iran.

Robert Kelly, who conducted inspections for the IAEA, told the newspaper, “I am completely convinced that Saudi Arabia and China are activity cooperating on plans for uranium mining and yellowcake production.”

The fact that Saudi Arabia took this step is not a surprise. The country’s leaders signaled they would do so back in 2017. Reuters reported that  Saudi Arabia plans to extract uranium domestically as part of its nuclear power program and sees this as a step towards “self-sufficiency” in producing atomic fuel,

Reuters reported that preliminary studies have estimated Saudi Arabia has around 60,000 tonnes of uranium ore, Maher al Odan, the chief atomic energy officer of KACARE said at an electricity forum in Riyadh on Oct 11, 2017.  At a yield of four pounds of uranium per tonne of ore, that’s a lot of uranium depending on how rich the deposits are and how much can be recovered over time.

process layout of a uranium mill

Layout of a Typical Uranium Mill. Image DOE/EIA

The Role for Pakistan in the Saudi Nuclear Program

In February 2019 this blog predicted that Saudi Arabia would turn to China for its nuclear reactor technology.  If it plans to go beyond making yellowcake to fuel new reactors, it can get enrichment technology from Pakistan which has a tight relationship with Saudi Arabia that is long standing in regard to these matters.

This act of acquiring the uranium mill  from China also may position China to be the supplier of commercial nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia which has a tender out for two 1000 MW -1400 MW commercial nuclear reactors.

However, given the low price of oil, which is likely to remain low for some period of time, perhaps several years, building nuclear fuel enrichment plants, fuel fabrication facilities, and bomb making plants are beyond the financial reach of Saudi Arabia at this time.

A trade route of oil for nuclear technology from Pakistan with Saudi Arabia is a real possibility. To get around the financial bind it is in, Saudi Arabia could ship its yellowcake to Pakistan for enrichment which reopens the problem of having access to highly enriched (20% U235 or greater) to make bombs. Even more to the point, the yellowcake announcement could be a dodge.

Saudi Arabia may have a protocol with Pakistan that if it wants nuclear weapons, that country has set aside some from its arsenal to provide them. While everyone is watching the yellowcake drama, behind the green curtain, so to speak, it is plausible that the real bomb making program could be underway in collaboration with Pakistan.

U.S. has Lost its Leverage

In acquiring the technology to make yellowcake, Saudi Arabia has de facto sent a message to the U.S. that it will not sign an agreement under Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act with the U.S. similar to the one signed by the United Arab Emirates. That agreement banned uranium enrichment and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

Further, in taking a significant step on the road to become a nuclear power, it has slammed the door shut on U.S. vendors of nuclear technologies, hardware, and related software and services.

GIven the Trump administration’s friendly tilt towards Saudi Arabia, it is unlikely the President may do anything about this news, but there certainly will be a bipartisan uproar in Congress about it. Whether that leads to anything concrete in terms of legislation is problematic given the dysfunction that we are seeing in the current session.

If the Democrats win the White house and sweep both the house and senate, then you might see a strong response.

Regardless, Saudi Arabia has upped the stakes in its contentions with Iran which is not good for the region as a whole. Metaphorically speaking, the the quantum question of whether the cat is alive or dead is answered. The cat is alive.

What About the Saudi Research Reactor?

Both newspapers have made a big deal out of a research reactor that Saudi Arabia is having built for it by Argentina. This is not a big deal as a proliferation threat. The fuel is only enriched to 2.3% U235 and the total power of the reactor is 10KW of power.

The research reactor, being built by Argentina’s state-backed nuclear company INVAP, is a low power research reactor (LPRR) that is generally used to irradiate materials, make medical isotopes, and train nuclear engineers and operators on the fundamentals of atomic energy.

The IAEA has asked Saudi Arabia to allow inspections once it seeks to fuel the reactor. No nation that is a member of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) will provide any nuclear fuel to Saudi Arabia for any reason if it does not sign on to the IAEA’s requirements for inspections.

Saudi Arabia still has to get the fuel to run it, and a possible source is Pakistan if the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) declines to provide the fuel.

What Will the Research Reactor Do?

According to its website King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST), which is where the research reactor is located, is a scientific government institution that supports and enhances scientific applied research. Research activities focus on projects in agriculture, industry, and medicine through specialized personnel in diverse engineering fields, nuclear sciences, and physics.

Another field in this sector is irradiation technology which involves research in improving the properties of materials and products through irradiation, for the benefits of industry, medicine, and food sectors.

This sector also supports the national fundamental requirements of radiation monitoring and measurements; e.g., radiological baseline studies of the environment in areas involved with industrial and mining activities. This work may support site characterization of potential sites for commercial nuclear reactors.

In building the research reactor, Saudi Arabia crossed a threshold of a previous “small quantities” exemption for IAEA inspections. The country has not as yet agreed to have the inspections or to sign the additional protocols required under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty which Saudi Arabia has signed. That’s a potential sign of bad faith and is not helpful in terms of thinking Saudi Arabia will stop its nuclear energy program just with yellowcake.

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