Saudi Arabia close to building first nuclear reactor despite not signing up to international safeguards 

Saudi Arabia plans to issue a multi-billion-dollar tender in 2020 to construct its first two nuclear power reactors and is discussing the project with US and other potential suppliers, three sources familiar with the plans have said.

The world’s top oil exporter wants to diversify its energy mix, adding nuclear power so it can free up more crude for export. But the plans are facing Washington’s scrutiny because of potential military uses for the technology.

Saudi Arabia, which aims to mine for uranium, says its plans are peaceful. But Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 the kingdom would develop nuclear arms if Iran did.

US, Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms are in talks with Riyadh to supply reactors, a promising deal for an industry recovering from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

"Saudi Arabia is continuing to make very deliberate steps forward although at a slower pace than originally expected," one of the sources familiar with the plans told Reuters.

Saudi officials previously said they aimed to select a vendor in late 2018, which then slipped to 2019. The sources said the tender would now be issued in 2020.

Two sources said the project was proceeding slowly partly because the kingdom was still in discussions with all potential suppliers rather than narrowing them down to a short list.

The plans have also been delayed by strained ties with Washington, which criticised Riyadh after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October, a source familiar with the talks said.

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Riyadh needs to sign an accord on the peaceful use of nuclear technology with Washington to secure the transfer of US nuclear equipment and expertise, under the US Atomic Energy Act. US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said last week that the negotiations which began in 2012 were continuing.

The source said Washington has also been seeking to convince Riyadh to sign the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Additional Protocol on extra safeguards for verifying nuclear technology is used for peaceful applications. The kingdom has so far resisted, the source added.

The fate of these negotiations could determine whether Riyadh reaches a deal with US firms, the source said.

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