Saudi Arabia plans to use its own uranium resources to develop the kingdom's civilian nuclear programme, its energy minister said on Wednesday. The world's biggest oil exporter is trying to reduce its dependence on crude and announced in 2018 a plan to build 16 nuclear reactors over two decades. The project would cost $80 billion.

"Recent exploration activities revealed the presence of diverse sources of uranium in various locations," the minister, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, told a minerals conference, according to state-run Al-Ekhbariya TV. "The kingdom intends to use its national uranium resources, including for joint projects with its partners," the minister added.

This would be done in conformity with "international obligations and rules of transparency, covering the entire production cycle", he said. In March 2018, Riyadh approved its national atomic energy policy which limited nuclear activities to peaceful purposes and called for enhanced safety measures, as well as the use of best practises for radioactive waste management, state media reported at the time.

Argentina was building the first project, a low power research reactor generally used to train technicians. Some analysts have voiced concerns that Saudi Arabia was seeking to use its atomic programme as a hedge against its arch-rival Iran.

In a 2018 US television interview Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon, his country would seek to do the same.

Iran reached a 2015 agreement with world powers to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement aimed to stop Iran from developing an atomic bomb but the United States pulled out of that deal in 2018, leading Iran to begin reneging on its commitments.

Talks to revive the pact have since stalled.

Tehran has always denied seeking a nuclear weapon. In 2021, Saudi Arabia's regional economic rival the United Arab Emirates announced that its Barakah nuclear power plant had begun commercial operations as the first in the Arab world. - AFP