Saudi Arabia mulls Chinese offer to build nuclear power plant

Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. US-Saudi relations have been fraught in recent years (Public domain)
China has offered to build a nuclear power station in Saudi Arabia, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday. The plan, according to Saudi officials familiar with the matter, is for China National Nuclear Corp (CNNC) to build a plant on the kingdom’s Gulf coast, near the border with Qatar.

The Reuters news agency notes that if the reports are confirmed, it would represent a snub to the US, which had offered to help Saudi Arabia develop a civil nuclear industry as part of a normalisation deal with Israel.

However, the US deal would be on the condition that Saudi Arabia did not gain access to the full uranium fuel cycle. This would include the enrichment of U-235 and the reprocessing of spent fuel, both of which are routes to building nuclear weapons.

According to the WSJ, Saudi officials acknowledged that their willingness to entertain the Chinese offer was a way of “goading the Biden administration to compromise on its non-proliferation requirements”.

It added that the preferred Saudi option was to hire South Korean state utility Korea Electric Power to build the reactors with the help of US companies, but without the proliferation safeguards.

Subsequent to the WSJ and Reuters articles, the Financial Times published a piece based on its own unnamed sources. This confirmed the WSJ report, but said Rosatom of Russia and EDF of France were also in the running to build the plant.

One source said Riyadh would prefer the US, which is seen to have the best technology, but that Washington’s restrictions on enrichment was a deal-breaker.

Saudi relations with the US have been turbulent in recent years. The kingdom has taken a series of actions that have earned American disapproval, including cuts in oil production, the Chinese-sponsored rapprochement with Iran, a possible decision to sell oil to China in yuan rather than the dollar and the recent entry into the non-Western Brics organisation. 

Officials told the WSJ that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the main decision-maker in Saudi Arabia, was prepared to move ahead with CNNC’s offer soon if talks with the US failed.

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