Saudi Arabia Nuclear Reactor Identified in Satellite Images

Canary. Photo by 4028mdk09.

The Daily Mail reported in early April that “Saudi Arabia is close to completeling its first nuclear reactor according to satellite images,” according to experts, and that it appears they are about a year from completion.

A veteran with the US Department of Energy Robert Kelley, who is now based in Vienna, was the first to identify what appears to be satellite images of the reactor’s site in Riyadh at the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST).

Kelley noted that “the kingdom “seem very cavalier about modifying their arrangements the IAEA,” the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog.

“The Saudis agreed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty three decades ago. Kelley added that “before the kingdom can insert nuclear fuel into the reactor, it would have to abide by an agreement that requires inspections” by the IAEA.

In 2005, it signed an agreement with the IAEA known as the ‘small quantities protocol’ that allows countries with negligible nuclear programs to be exempt from regular inspections or nuclear monitoring.

However, once nuclear fuel is brought into the country to operate this small reactor, inspections by the IAEA would be required, Kelley said.

‘It’s simply that they’re crossing a threshold in terms of their requirements,’ Kelley said, explaining the significance of the construction of the reactor, which is much smaller than the ones the kingdom has said it wants to build for energy purposes.


NPR reports, while Saudi Arabia builds their nuclear reactor, what they are calling their ‘future of its energy production,” in the outskirts of Riyadh, some are worrying about its motives.

Plantet (@planetlabs), a company which ‘has about 140 shoebox-size satellites that take 1.2 million pictures a day,’ has identified the KACST’s “small research reactor” under construction.

At the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology, the Saudi government is constructing a small nuclear research reactor. The Argentine-designed reactor will produce just tens of kilowatts of energy, a tiny fraction of what Saudi Arabia needs. But it’s a sign of things to come — the kingdom’s plans include gigawatts of energy from nuclear plants for both electricity and desalination.

Saudi Arabia’s plans appear, on paper, to be entirely peaceful. But some arms control experts are concerned that its nuclear energy ambitions may also be part of its ongoing rivalry with Iran, which already possesses dual-use technology that could aid in the production of a nuclear bomb.

The U.S. and others such as South Korea and China are pushing ahead with plans to help Saudi Arabia’s civilian nuclear program.

“The big, big question in the background,” says Sharon Squassoni, a nuclear expert and professor at George Washington University, “is do we have enough controls in place that we can trust [Saudi Arabia]? Since they’ve been pretty clear about their intentions should things go bad with Iran.”

You can listen to NPR’s report below.

For more on Planet Lab, read Alta Journal’s, A Dove’s Eye View.

Planet has built the world’s largest constellation of satellites. The company has deployed more than 300 Dove satellites; about 140 are active.

Planet has about 140 shoebox-size satellites that take 1.2 million pictures a day. They’ve spotted North Korea’s nuclear tests, the massacre of Muslim Rohingya, and California forest fires — images that are changing how we look at the earth and technology itself.

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