Sell nuclear plants to the Saudis? Are you kidding?

Sell nuclear plants to the Saudis? Are you kidding?
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The revelations of a House Oversight Committee report on the activities of IP3, a U.S. business group, to sell U.S. nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and other Middle East countries, make clear that Congress has to step in to block U.S. reactor exports to Riyadh. Current law gives the Executive Branch too much power in negotiating civilian nuclear cooperative agreements with other countries.

In the Saudi case, the proposed nuclear exports are all clothed in terms of providing energy to power the Kingdom’s modernization. But the first thing to understand is that the Crown Prince’s push to get nuclear technology is also about countering Iran, and that means having the wherewithal to make nuclear weapons. He has made that crystal clear in a famous CBS interview in which he said if Iran gets nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will follow “as soon as possible.” The Saudis already have the rockets, and we shouldn’t be surprised if they jump the gun on the nuclear warheads.

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There is no internal check on the Crown Prince, who we have learned is capable of violation of international norms. The country is an absolute monarchy. In the latest Freedom House report that rates countries on the basis of their degree of freedom, Saudi Arabia was down with North Korea in the “worst of the worst” category, scoring 7 out of 100. By comparison, Iran scored 18 and Iraq 32.

The purveyors of nuclear technology, however, are not fussy about such things and are drawn like flies to putative Saudi billions. In the arguments over the conditions in any U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement — such an understanding is required by law before any U.S. export can take place — the nuclear industry has opposed anything beyond minimal restrictions. At no time has the industry supported efforts to get Saudi Arabia to forswear enriching uranium or separating plutonium, the two gateways to a bomb. The Saudis, they told us, are proud people and can’t be expected to accept such humiliation. We have recently learned just how proud they are when the Crown Prince’s spokesman informed us that any sanctions of the Kingdom’s rulers is a “red line.

The IP3 group drags out the usual argument that if we don’t sell the stuff to the Saudis then Russia and China will, and they “are using the export of nuclear power not just for export earnings but also to expand their geopolitical influence.” It is a “strategic imperative” that we beat out the Chinese and Russians in selling nuclear plants.

With generals and admirals on its board, IP3 bases its involvement on its security expertise and its grandiose vision of a “Middle East Marshall Plan.” A Marshall Plan for sheikhs with bags of money? Yet on this basis the firm succeeded in getting a closed meeting of potential nuclear industry participants with the president on Feb. 12.

As with most things that involve this administration, it’s not clear who is doing what, and what the financial stakes are. Apparently the President’s close friend and chairman of his inauguration committee, Thomas Barrack, a man with close ties to the Saudis, is part of the action. He distinguished himself recently by excusing the murder of Jamal Khashoggi with the observation, "the atrocities in America are equal, or worse, to the atrocities in Saudi Arabia." He later voiced an apology.

The willingness to share nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia fits in with the Trump-Kushner strategy to form an American-sponsored alliance of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia plus Israel to oppose Iran. It’s a kind of sweetener — the long-term consequences be damned.

IP3 touts other benefits of nuclear exports. A massive American-orchestrated reactor sale in the Middle East would, they tell us, save the dying U.S. nuclear industry. But there is a reason it has run out of domestic markets. Large U.S. nuclear reactors no longer make much economic sense. We’re never going to start building another one in the United States, at least of the current type.

And nuclear power makes less sense in natural gas-rich, sun-drenched Saudi Arabia. Its neighbor, United Arab Emirates, that did build four reactors, has put out no additional nuclear bids because of cheaper nonnuclear alternatives. No, the Saudis will buy the minimum for what they need to equip and staff a potential bomb program. The IP3 generals have got to know that but must be willing to play along for immediate gain.

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There are other suspect developments. The House report notes that IP3 suggested the Kingdom buy out Westinghouse Electric, the once-great U.S. nuclear vendor that went bankrupt and is now owned by a Canadian firm, Brookfield Asset Management. Westinghouse is part of IP3’s proposed consortium to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. (It had frequently been wrongly described as a U.S. firm — it was owned by Toshiba for years). Incidentally, or not, Brookfield Asset Management took a 99-year lease on the Kushner family’s deeply indebted New York City property, thereby getting the family out of a deep hole.

The most hard-to-take part of IP3’s claims is that their Middle East [Nuclear] Marshall Plan is motivated by concern for nuclear safety and nonproliferation. Only the United States nuclear industry, they argue, can deliver the standard of safety, security, regulatory oversight, and operational primacy required to ensure both the non-proliferation goals as well as the strategic goals of the United States are achieved.

They know that to pull off their plan they will need lots of government money, so they talk up “close coordination between the U.S. Government and industry.” It’s a signal that if they get off the ground there will be requests in the billions for government loans. It recalls the old Tennessee saying, “If you let a hog in your house, he’ll sit on your table.”

The serious part of this is that sharing nuclear technology with unreliable countries risks nuclear calamity. You would think the IP3 plan to sow the Middle East with American nuclear plants would be rejected out of hand. But with this administration you can’t be sure, so it’s up to Congress to bat the idea down.

It’s not easy, however, under current law for Congress to block an executive branch nuclear agreement with a foreign country. Congress should change that by amending the U.S. Atomic Energy Act to require a congressional vote of approval before any such agreements can go into effect.

Victor Gilinsky is program advisor for the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center (NPEC) in Arlington, Va. He served on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Henry Sokolski is executive director of NPEC and the author of "Underestimated: Our Not So Peaceful Nuclear Future" (second edition 2019). He served as deputy for nonproliferation policy in the office of the U.S. secretary of defense in the Cheney Pentagon.