Saudi Arabia is building its first nuclear reactor
Saudi Arabia wants to enrich uranium for its nuclear power program with the help of US companies, after a series of talks with Washington on an atomic pact.
The oil exporter country says it wants to use nuclear power to diversify its energy mix, but enrichment also opens up the possibility of military uses of uranium.
"We are proceeding with it cautiously ... we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors," Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said, referring to a plan to issue a tender for the Persian Gulf Arab state's first two nuclear power reactors.
Ultimately the kingdom wanted to go ahead with the full cycle of the nuclear programme, including the production and enrichment of uranium for atomic fuel, he told an energy conference in Abu Dhabi.
The tender is expected in 2020, with US, Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms involved in preliminary talks about the multi-billion-dollar project.
Although atomic reactors need uranium enriched to around 5% purity, the same technology can also be used to enrich the heavy metal to higher, weapons-grade levels.
Saudi Arabia has backed US President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran after he withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear pact and effort to disrupt Iran's civilian nuclear programme.
In order for US companies to compete for Saudi Arabia's project, Riyadh would normally need to sign an accord on the peaceful use of nuclear technology with Washington.
The United States would like to sign this pact, known as a 123 agreement, a senior U.S. official said at the conference.
"It's important for us, with regards to US technology, we're going to pursue a 123 agreement," Dan Brouillette, Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Energy, said.
"We would like to see a 123 agreement accompany any agreement to transfer US technology or use US technology in Saudi or any other place," he added.
Reuters has reported that progress on the discussions has been difficult because Saudi Arabia does not want to sign a deal that would rule out the possibility of enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel - both potential paths to a bomb.
International concerns about the dual use of nuclear technology by Saudi Arabia.