That Saudi Yellowcake Plant

The New York Times has a couple of photos and links to others of sites that may be the yellowcake plant alleged to have been built recently in Saudi Arabia by China.

They are cautious about the claims.

American officials said that the Saudi efforts were still in an early stage, and that intelligence analysts had yet to draw firm conclusions about some of the sites under scrutiny. 

Here’s the first of their photos:

The caption is

An image taken May 27 showing, top right, two square buildings that some analysts think could be a Saudi nuclear facility. It is located near the Solar Village, bottom left. Credit…Maxar Technologies/Google Earth

The scale bar is cut off, so it’s not possible to use it. Let’s say that the highway lanes are about 4 meters and use them to measure those buildings. I get maybe 30 by 35 meters for both.

The buildings are featureless and without a sturdy road to the main highway. Perhaps it is yet to be built. There is a narrow road from the buildings to the solar facility. There is no tailings pond for aqueous waste. Perhaps that is also to be built.

There is also a picture of the two buildings under construction, in a different orientation.

A Google Earth image taken on Jan. 11, 2014, showing buildings early in the construction process at the suspected nuclear facility.Credit…CNES/Airbus/Google Earth

The circular structures could be to hold processing equipment, although there is more to producing yellowcake than aqueous processing in vats. They could also be a way to produce a very strong floor, which might be needed for many reasons – heavy equipment storage, for one, or other equipment associated with the solar site.

The article mentions a report by David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security, which sees little to be concerned about the site other than its remoteness. There is no link to the report, and it may not be online.

He noted that his examination of satellite images could identify no signs of processing equipment or raw materials arriving at the desert facility.

Another site was located by Frank Pabian, with eight photos in two tweets. This site contains a pond that might be used for tailings disposal, which existed before the building was completed. The photos also show piles of earth or similar material that come and go, along with some large truck traffic.

Both of these sites are extremely small for uranium ore processing.

Dave Schmerler recently looked at a North Korean uranium mine and mill. The first picture shows the tailings pond on the other side of the river, and the second is a closeup of the buildings. Those lone one and two buildings in Saudi Arabia are nothing like this.

For the Saudi site, where is the mine? Because yellowcake is maybe 1% of what is mined, large amounts of material must be moved. Thus, mills are usually close to their mines. Are there signs of excavation or tunnels nearby these structures, say within a few kilometers? And heavy mining equipment? Where do the workers live? What is the source of water?

The New York Times has several people who do open-source intelligence. They were not the reporters on this article. I’d like to hear from them. Also Bellingcat and CNS!

Update: A commenter points out that the current photo on Google Earth shows the area in the first photo much more developed than the photo in the Times, with what looks like a sewage facility to the north of the two buildings. Strange that the Times or the intel organization wouldn’t use the most recent photos.

Update (8/7/2020): The CNS team weighs in.

Cross-posted to Balloon Juice


  1. Evan Robinson · August 6, 2020

    At least one airbase in Egypt used for covert missions routinely spread sand over runways to conceal them. It wouldn’t be hard to do to a road.


    • Cheryl Rofer · August 6, 2020

      And a lot of work to remove it for all the truck traffic a mill needs.


  2. Evan Robinson · August 6, 2020

    Not really. Dirt or sand over a good hard road will look different from above without significantly compromising the road surface or capacity.

    In this case they’d just need the road to look like a dirt road, not to completely disappear.


  3. gary hein · August 7, 2020

    There are a number of what could be dirt roads that could be waiting for pavement when the time is correct.


  4. Marcel W. · August 9, 2020

    Is the scale on Google maps too inaccurate to use to measure the buildings ? Using a guess of the road size from the air seems uncertain. I have used the Google scale before and would like to know if that method is iffy.


    • Cheryl Rofer · August 9, 2020

      The Google scale is fine, but the scale in the Times graphic is cut off. I was being lazy and didn’t go to Google Earth. I didn’t need that accurate a measurement anyway.


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