Saudi Arabia has constructed a facility for extracting uranium "yellowcake" from ore with help from China, Western officials revealed to the Wall Street Journal yesterday.
According to the officials, the facility is located in a sparsely populated area in the north-west of the Kingdom. The Saudi Energy Ministry said in a statement, however, that it "categorically denies" having built the facility in that area, although it acknowledged that it has contracts with China on uranium exploration within certain other areas of the country.
"Yellowcake" is a powdered and milled form of uranium ore, an element occurring naturally throughout Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The ore is processed chemically into a fine powder before being put through further processes to enrich the uranium, enabling it to power nuclear energy plants and even be used in nuclear weapons if highly enriched.
The Saudi government maintains that minerals such as uranium are extracted as a key part of its strategy to diversify its economy. The uranium is used for non-military purposes at the moment, as Riyadh plans to acquire nuclear energy capabilities; the Saudi energy minister announced this last year.
However, concerns have been raised about the potential capability of Saudi Arabia to acquire its own nuclear weapons. US senators have sought full details of contracts for nuclear cooperation with the Kingdom, and Israeli researchers have recommended ways of keeping the nuclear development peaceful. Israel also expressed its confidence back in 2018 that the US would limit Saudi Arabia's future nuclear development and prevent it from attaining weapons-grade nuclear material.
Despite Riyadh's guarantee to use any nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes only, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman said two years ago that he would develop nuclear weapons if Iran manages to do so.
China's assistance in the construction of the "yellowcake" facility is also a concern to the US, which wants to keep Beijing's influence out of the Middle East.