Why trump might bend nuclear security rules to help saudi arabia build reactors in the desert – the washington post electricity deregulation choices and challenges


For Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the reactors are a matter of international prestige and power, a step toward matching the nuclear program of Shia rival Iran while quenching some of the kingdom’s domestic thirst for energy.

For the Trump administration, the contest poses a thorny choice between promoting U.S. companies and fighting nuclear proliferation. If the administration wants to boost the chances of a U.S. consortium led by Westinghouse, it might need to bend rules designed to limit nuclear proliferation in an unstable part of the world. That could heighten security risks and encourage other Middle Eastern countries to follow suit.

“If the Saudis were to get an agreement without restrictions, it would set a dangerous precedent in the region and [be] a significant break with American nuclear policy for the last 50 years,” said Jon Wolfsthal, a consultant on nuclear weapons who was a director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council under President Barack Obama.

The issue is a test of President Trump’s foreign policy and his self-professed bargaining prowess. Trump, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry have made pilgrimages to Riyadh to cozy up to the young crown prince and win big contracts for U.S. firms. Yet little has come to fruition.

Now, as Mohammed prepares to visit the United States in March, the Saudi deadline looms for Westinghouse, which is winding its way through bankruptcy and is eager to find customers for its much-praised AP1000 design. Without a diplomatic deal, Westinghouse and a South Korean group, which uses U.S. parts and technology and would be bound by the same rules, could be sidelined in favor of Russian or Chinese state companies.

The United States has 123 agreements with 23 countries, Taiwan and Euratom, a group of 27 nations. The 123 agreement for Saudi Arabia imposes limits on uranium enrichment and the reprocessing of spent fuel, both of which could be used to produce material for nuclear bombs.

Saudi Arabia has argued that it should be free to mine and enrich its own uranium deposits, as long as it abides by the international Non-Proliferation Treaty, which bars the diversion of materials to a weapons program. The China National Nuclear Corp. has signed preliminary agreements with the Saudis to explore nine potential uranium mining areas. Former intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal told Reuters in December that Saudi Arabia would “have the same right as the other members of the NPT, including Iran.”

Mohammed, who harbors ambitions for an invigorated, more diverse Saudi economy, invited foreign firms to submit proposals last fall. In mid-November, executives from the world’s five leading nuclear reactor design and construction firms — including the Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse — made presentations to Saudi officials.

Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the nonprofit Nonproliferation Policy Education Center who served in President George H.W. Bush’s Pentagon, asked, “How do we feel about the stability of the kingdom? The reactors are bolted to the ground for a minimum of 40 years and a maximum of 80 years. That’s enough for the whole world to change.”

But others say that if the United States doesn’t build the reactors, then Russia’s Rosatom or the China Nuclear Engineering and Construction Group will, providing fewer safeguards against proliferation and eroding U.S. diplomatic strength in the region.

“I would prefer to have America’s nuclear industry in Saudi Arabia than to have Russian or China’s, so I think it’s useful that we’re reengaging with the Saudis. We should try to get the best restraints on enrichment and reprocessing, including a ban for some significant length of time, say 20 or 25 years,” said Robert Einhorn, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former State Department adviser for nonproliferation and arms control. “We should show some flexibility.”

“If ever there was a place that could take care of own energy needs without nuclear, it’s the UAE,” said F. Gregory Gause, a professor of international affairs at Texas A&M University. “I think it becomes a prestige thing, like international airports.”

But the UAE also signed a 123 agreement in January 2009 that is called the gold standard. It agreed not to enrich or reprocess — although a passage says it could reconsider if others in the region start doing so. It plans to buy uranium from the United States and ship spent fuel to Britain or France for reprocessing.

For Saudi Arabia, the UAE’s gold standard set a high bar. “During the Obama administration, we were at an impasse,” said Gary Samore, a former White House arms control coordinator now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “We wanted them to make a commitment similar to what Abu Dhabi did. We never overcame that issue in our negotiations.”

Now the Saudis have a new reason to press for concessions: The nuclear deal Obama and other allies reached with Iran allows Tehran to continue enrichment within strict limits for commercial use and with intrusive inspections. Trump has called it “the worst deal ever.” The Saudi government noted that some clauses will expire after 15 years.

Many experts on Saudi Arabia say the kingdom wants its own program to deter or counterbalance Iran. “I think part of it is keeping up with the Iranians and trying to build up a nuclear infrastructure that could be turned into weapons capability,” Gause said.

Westinghouse, a former Toshiba subsidiary, went bankrupt after losing billions of dollars acting as contractor for four reactors in the United States. Two reactors in South Carolina have been abandoned; two in Georgia remain under construction at twice the original cost, but now managed by the Southern Co.

In January, Brookfield Asset Management — a Canadian conglomerate involved in money management, real estate, oil and gas production, and more — bid $4.6 billion to buy Westinghouse. The main attraction is the refueling and maintenance services Westinghouse profitably provides existing reactors.

The sale of new reactors would be a bonus, but Brookfield isn’t counting on it. One thing Westinghouse will not do under Brookfield is take on construction risk again. So the U.S. group makes Fluor the contractor; the utility Exelon would train operators for the reactors, according to people who have met with Westinghouse.

Saudi Arabia “would like us to cave to some degree on some elements of the 123 agreement,” said Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. But, he added, “the fewer Mideast nuclear weapons states, the better. And the fewer nondemocratic nuclear states, the better. And the fewer states where I can’t predict 10 years down the road what their attitudes will be toward the United States, the fewer of those countries that have nuclear weapons the better.”