Saudi Nuclear Facility Near Completion According To Satellite Photos

Saudi Arabia has nearly completed its first nuclear reactor according to satellite photos of the facility published by GoogleEarth, which reveal a "columnar vessel that will contain atomic fuel," according to Bloomberg.

Located in the southwest corner of the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh, the new facility has raised concerns in the West - as the Saudis have yet to sign up to the international framework of rules adhered to by other nuclear powers in order to prevent civilian atomic programs aren't used to develop weapons. Nuclear fuel providers, meanwhile, cannot legally supply the new reactor until modern surveillance arrangements have been reached with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. 

A satellite image time series shows development of the site at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology where Saudi Arabia is building its first nuclear reactor. The top image shows just a bare patch of land in April 2017. One year later, the site is lined with construction vehicles and the outlines of a foundation are already apparent. The most recent pictures shows that work on Saudi Arabia's first reactor is well advanced with the containment vessel already in place.Source: GoogleEarth

"There’s a very high probability these images show the country’s first nuclear facility," said former IAEA director Robert Kelley, who also directed the US Department of Energy's remote sensing laboratory. "It means that Saudi Arabia has to get its safeguards in order."

Saudi Arabia’s energy ministry said in a statement the facility’s purpose is to ``engage in strictly peaceful scientific, research, educational and training activities in full compliance with international agreements.’’ The reactor is being built with transparency, and the kingdom has signed all international non-proliferation treaties, the ministry said, adding that the facility is open to visitors.

While Saudi Arabia has been open about its ambitions to acquire a nuclear plant, less is known about the kinds of monitoring the kingdom intends to put in place. More arms-control experts are scrutinizing Saudi Arabia’s nuclear work because of official statements that the kingdom could try to acquire nuclear weapons. -Bloomberg

Last year, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman threatened to develop a nuclear bomb if regional rival Iran does first. 

"The much louder debate in Washington is about whether Saudi Arabia acquires nuclear weapons," said researcher and former diplomat on non-proliferation Sharon Squassoni of George Washington University. 

"The fuel isn’t going to be supplied until it has a strong safeguards agreement in place," Squassoni added. "Once they cross that threshold of needing fuel, it has to be in place."

Natural uranium is around 99.3% non-reactive U-238 and 0.7% U-235, which can sustain a nuclear reaction. To use uranium as fuel, the U-235 is separated from the U-238 using centrifuges until it is "enriched" to 7-20% - well short of the purity needed for a weapon. Weapons-grade uranium is enriched above a 90%. 

At present there are five recognized "nuclear-weapon states" under the terms of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); the United States, Russia, UK, France and China. Three nuclear states are non-signatories; India, Pakistan and North Korea - which withdrew from the NPT in 2003, while Israel is widely known to have developed nuclear weapons, yet has not openly declared its capability. 

Saudi Arabia is a current signatory to the IAEA's "Small Quantities Protocol" - which will become obsolete once the Kingdom needs atomic fuel. According to Bloomberg, it has yet to adope the rules and procedures which would allow IAEA inspectors to access potential sites of interest. 

In the rarefied world of nuclear monitoring, the IAEA is responsible for sending hundreds of inspectors around the world to look after and maintain a vast network of cameras, seals and sensors. Their job is to account for gram levels of enriched uranium, ensuring that the key ingredient needed for nuclear power isn’t diverted to weapons. Without submitting to tighter IAEA monitoring, the kingdom would struggle to fuel its reactor. -Bloomberg

"Saudi Arabia will have to move to a full scope comprehensive safeguards agreement with subsidiary arrangements before the unit is fueled," said Argentina's IAEA envoy, Rafael Mariano Grossi - the second such remark in a month that Saudi Arabia has been reminded that it needs to adhere to stricter international rules before its nuclear program can proceed. 

The goal of the enhanced monitoring standards are meant to ensure that nuclear fuel used in civilian power plants don't end up being refined into weapons-grade material. 

Saudi Arabia's nuclear program made headlines in February after the US Congress opened an investigation into the potentially illegal transfer of sensitive nuclear technologies to the kingdom, spearheaded by President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. The US Government Accountability Office (GAO) joined the Congressional probe this week, adding its authority as the federal watchdog assigned to examine US contracts in Saudi Arabia. 

The satellite images reveal a columnar vessel used to hold the nuclear fuel, which was developed by Argentina's state-owned INVAP SE and made in Saudi Arabia. According to Bloomberg, "The vessel is about 10 meters (33 feet) high with a 2.7 meter diameter, matching specifications of other research reactors, according to Kelley, who also used images published by Zamil Industrial Investment Co. to reach his conclusion." 

A steel reactor vessel, manufactured by Zamil Industrial Investment Co.
Source: Zamil Industrial Investment Co.

The 2013 deal between INVAP and Saudi Arabia opened the door to potentially lucrative new business for the debt-strapped South American country, which has been exporting research reactors for decades while also developing new modular power units. Those so-called Small Modular Reactors are a focal point of the kingdom’s nuclear ambitions, which aim for some 3.2 gigawatts of atomic power by 2030, according to an IAEA briefing given by Saudi regulators.  -Bloomberg

IAEA inspectors are currently limited in their ability to access Saudi sites because their program is developing "based on an old text" of rules, according to a March statement by IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano. The agency is encouraging the Kingdom to upgrade to the most stringent inspection guidelines available.