Analysis & Opinions - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Program: Separating Real Concerns from Threat Inflation

| Oct. 08, 2020

In the highly charged political atmosphere surrounding nuclear initiatives in the Middle East, legitimate concerns are sometimes blown out of proportion, with potentially problematic results. This has been the case with recent coverage and commentary on Saudi Arabia’s nuclear activities, which have been characterized by a degree of what can be described as “threat inflation.”

While there are legitimate questions about what Saudi Arabia eventually intends to do with nuclear technology, the fact is that today the kingdom is not moving to establish either uranium enrichment or plutonium separation capability, without which there is no path to the Bomb. The kingdom’s reported uranium mining activities are far from what is needed for a nuclear weapon.

The nonproliferation community should certainly be vigilant regarding what the kingdom is doing or planning to do on the nuclear front; given the geopolitical context in the Middle East, however, promoting exaggerated and alarmist claims is counterproductive and could actually be harmful to nonproliferation efforts.

In August, the Wall Street Journal reported that the kingdom had built, with help from China, a secret facility to extract yellowcake from uranium ore. Yellowcake is concentrated, natural uranium in powdered form. The report stated that, “The [yellowcake extracting] facility, which hasn’t been publicly disclosed, is in a sparsely populated area in Saudi Arabia’s northwest and has raised concern among US and allied officials that the kingdom’s nascent nuclear program is moving ahead and that Riyadh is keeping open the option of developing nuclear weapons.”

Several weeks later, the Guardian published a report outlining the kingdom’s uranium ore reserves—rock that is still in the ground—noting that it likely has enough of these reserves to enable domestic production of nuclear fuel. The report stated, “If Saudi Arabia is able to mine sufficient uranium domestically, rather than relying on foreign providers, it could give the kingdom a boost toward creating its own weapons programme, experts say.”

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ahmad, Ali.“Saudi Arabia’s Nuclear Program: Separating Real Concerns from Threat Inflation.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 8, 2020.

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