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IAEA in extensive talks with Saudi Arabia on tougher nuclear controls

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VIENNA (Reuters) – The UN nuclear watchdog is in extensive talks with Saudi Arabia over tougher oversight of the kingdoms’ nuclear activities, the agency said Monday as part of a broader effort to eliminate a weakness in the global inspection regime. .

The Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi, wearing a protective mask, arrives for a press conference during a meeting of the Board of Governors at the IAEA Headquarters in Vienna, Austria September 14, 2020. REUTERS / Leonhard Foeger

Saudi Arabia has a newborn nuclear program it wants to expand to eventually include proliferation-sensitive uranium enrichment. It is unclear where its ambitions end, as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 that it would develop nuclear weapons if regional rival Iran did.

Riyadh has not yet burned its first nuclear reactor, allowing its program to still be monitored under the Small Volume Protocol (SQP), an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency that exempts less advanced states from many reporting obligations. and inspections.

We are in conversation with them. They are interested in developing nuclear energy, of course for peaceful purposes, IAEA chief Rafael Grossi said when asked about verification in Saudi Arabia.

So it is clear that when they update their activities including the introduction of nuclear material into the kingdom, then we will need to have a stronger system of safeguards. And nothing makes me think it will not be so.

If Saudi Arabia were to inject nuclear material into the near-completion research reactor in Riyadh, it would cancel the SQP and its exemptions from regular safeguards.

The parties are also discussing an additional agreement known as the Additional Protocol that provides for stricter controls, including early inspections at undeclared sites, Grossi said.

Asked if Riyadh should be registered in the Additional Protocol, he said: We are discussing everything.

The talks are part of a push to get 31 states with early versions of SQP to remove them or move on to updated texts.

This is essential to address a weakness in the IAEA safeguards system, Grossi said in a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors.

Reporting by Francois Murphy, Editing by Timothy Heritage

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