- senior prince@
* Saudi Arabia plans to develop nuclear energy program
* Riyadh plans tender in 2018 for two nuclear reactors
* Cooperation pact needed for U.S. firms to bid in tender
RIYADH, Dec 21 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia should not forfeit its "sovereign" right to one day enrich uranium under its planned civilian nuclear program, especially as world powers have allowed Iran to do so, a senior Saudi royal told Reuters.
Former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal's comments reinforced Riyadh's stance on what is likely to be a sensitive issue in talks between Saudi Arabia and the United States on an agreement to help the kingdom develop atomic energy.
Riyadh aims to start talks with the United States within weeks on a civilian nuclear cooperation pact, which is essential if U.S. firms are to bid in a multi-billion-dollar tender next year for building Saudi Arabia's first two nuclear reactors.
The reactors will be part of a wider program to produce electricity from atomic energy so that the kingdom can export more crude oil.
Riyadh says it wants nuclear technology only for peaceful uses but has left unclear whether it also wants to enrich uranium to produce nuclear fuel, a process which can also be used in the production of atomic weapons.
U.S. companies can usually transfer nuclear technology to another country only if the United States has signed an agreement with that country ruling out domestic uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel -- steps that can have military uses.
"It's a sovereign issue. If you look at the agreement between the P5+1 with Iran specifically it allows Iran to enrich," Prince Turki, who now holds no government office but remains influential, said in an interview on Tuesday in Riyadh.
He was referring to the six countries -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany -- that reached a deal with Tehran in 2015, under which economic sanctions on Iran were lifted in return for the Islamic Republic curbing its nuclear energy program.
"The world community that supports the nuclear deal between the P5+1 and Iran told Iran you can enrich although the NPT (global non-proliferation treaty) tells us all we can enrich," Prince Turki, a senior royal family member and a former ambassador to Washington, said.
"So the kingdom from that point of view will have the same right as the other members of the NPT, including Iran."
The dual technology has been at the heart of Western and regional concerns over the nuclear work of Iran, Saudi Arabias regional rival. These worries helped lead to the 2015 deal, which allows Iran to enrich uranium to around the normal level needed for commercial power production.
Atomic reactors need uranium enriched to around five percent purity but the same technology can also be used to enrich the heavy metal to higher, weapons-grade levels.
Saudi Arabia plans to build 17.6 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear capacity by 2032, the equivalent of around 16 reactors.
Riyadh has previously said it wants to tap its own uranium resources for "self-sufficiency" in producing nuclear fuel.
Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih told Reuters on Wednesday that said these large resources were being explored, were promising and that Saudi Arabia would like to localize the industry in the long-term.
Prince Turki said the only way to stop uranium enrichment would be by establishing a nuclear weapons-free zone in the Middle East, a longstanding idea which has been backed by the U.N.s nuclear assembly.
"This is not going to happen overnight. You have to set a time scale for negotiations to include regional discussions between the prospective members of the zone on issues not just of nuclear, but of achieving peace in the Middle East between Israel and Palestine," he said. (Editing by Sylvia Westall and Timothy Heritage)