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Congressional Democrats have asked the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, to provide information about China’s alleged role in building a uranium processing facility in Saudi Arabia.
US officials have told journalists and nuclear experts they suspect a mill for producing yellowcake – refined uranium ore – is being built by Chinese technicians in the desert near Al-Ula in the north-west of the kingdom.
The alleged construction of a yellowcake facility was first reported by the Wall Street Journal, but experts have yet to confirm its existence through satellite imagery. If confirmed, it would strengthen suspicions that the Saudi monarchy is secretly expanding its capacity to make nuclear weapons, though it would take several more years to advance from yellowcake to producing the fissile material necessary for a warhead.
In 2018 the country’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, told CBS News that if Iran built a nuclear weapon “we will follow suit as soon as possible”.
Iran had been abiding by a 2015 multilateral deal in which it accepted strict limits on its nuclear programme in return for sanctions relief, but since Donald Trump withdrew the US from that agreement in 2018 and began imposing escalating sanctions, Tehran has gradually expanded its nuclear activities beyond the limits set in 2015, and most experts say nuclear proliferation in the region is steadily increasing.
The Trump administration, which has been protective of Prince Mohammed, has so far said nothing publicly about reports of covert Saudi nuclear activities.
On Monday, the Democratic chairmen of three House foreign affairs subcommittees sent Pompeo a letter asking for “information regarding the People’s Republic of China’s reported transfers of nuclear and missile technology to Saudi Arabia, and the state department’s response to these sales”.
The three Democrats: Joaquin Castro, Ami Bera, and Theodore Deutch, asked Pompeo to provide answers to questions on whether the US had registered its concerns with Saudi Arabia and China about the alleged yellowcake factory, and whether the state department was taking steps to prevent Saudi Arabia moving on to other steps further up the chain towards producing fissile material. They also wanted to know whether the US was supporting the International Atomic Energy Agency in trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to accept a comprehensive safeguards agreement that would involve substantial monitoring and inspections.
“At the very minimum, you would expect the administration would speak out and have an opinion on these things, and do what it can to stop a country breaking out with nuclear weapons,” Castro told the Guardian.
“But with this administration, they play favourites with certain countries. They look the other way with different leaders. This is another symptom of the Trump administration’s disengagement from the world.”
The Democrats have given Pompeo until the end of the month to provide their requested information. The state department under his leadership has frequently ignored such requests, in a challenge to the oversight role of Congress.