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ABU DHABI, Sept 9 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia wants to enrich uranium in the future to fuel its planned nuclear power program, its energy minister said on Monday, a sensitive step that could complicate U.S. companies' involvement in the plan.
The world's top oil exporter has said it wants to use the metal to diversify its energy mix, but uranium enrichment also opens up the possibility of military uses of the material, the issue at the heart of Western and regional concerns over Iran's atomic work.
"We are proceeding with it cautiously ... we are experimenting with two nuclear reactors," Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said, referring to a plan to issue a tender for the Gulf Arab state's first two nuclear power reactors.
He told an energy conference in Abu Dhabi that ultimately the kingdom wanted to go ahead with the full cycle of the nuclear program, including the production and enrichment of uranium for fuel.
The tender is expected in 2020, with U.S., Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms involved in preliminary talks about the multi-billion-dollar project.
But the issue of uranium enrichment has been a sticking point with Washington, especially after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said in 2018 that the Sunni Muslim kingdom would develop nuclear arms if regional rival Shi'ite Muslim Iran did.
Saudi Arabia has backed President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Iran after he withdrew the United States from a 2015 nuclear pact that curbed Iran's disputed nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
In order for U.S. companies to compete for Saudi Arabia's project, Riyadh would normally need to sign an accord on the peaceful use of nuclear technology with Washington, under the United States Atomic Energy Act.
Saudi officials have said they would not sign a deal that would deprives the kingdom of the possibility of enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel in the future - both potential paths to a bomb. (Reporting by Rania El Gamal; Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Edmund Blair and Jan Harvey)