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Rick Perry, the Saudis and a Dangerous Nuclear Deal

Ken Shipp/United States Department of Energy • Public domain

Since January 2017, the Trump Administration has been in negotiations to allow a sale of two nuclear reactors designed by American companies to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.  This is troubling for at least two reasons.  First, nuclear reactors may provide the Saudis with a backdoor to a nuclear bomb.  Second, a February 19 interim report from the new Democratic majority on the House Oversight and Reform Committee alleges that the sale may involve conflicts of interest and other violations of federal law by Trump cronies inside and outside the Administration.

Reckless, corrupt, and illegal: the transaction is the quintessence of Trump.  Only a super-salesman can convince Americans that the proposed deal is a good idea and not just a means to enrich Trump associates.  Fortunately, the negotiations with the Saudis are being led by a man who describes himself as “America’s number one energy salesman”:  US Secretary of Energy Rick Perry.

“Of all the recent secretaries of energy, Perry knows the least about nuclear energy [and] nonproliferation policy,” observes Joe Cirincione, President of the nuclear watchdog Ploughshares Fund.  Before he became secretary of energy, Perry didn’t even know that the Department of Energy (DOE) is in charge of the US nuclear stockpile.  Perry forgot the name of the DOE during the 2016 Republican presidential primary debates while he was trying to list the three cabinet departments he would eliminate as president.  Who cares?  Perry’s job is selling.  To a super-salesman like Perry, whathe’s selling—used cars or nuclear bombs—doesn’t matter.

Secretary Perry was in Houston last week at the CERAWeek energy conference.  (The acronym stands for Cambridge Energy Research Associates.)  CERAWeek is an annual gathering of energy industry bigwigs and the politicians who love them (and who hope one day to become energy lobbyists, much as the lowly caterpillar aspires to become a beautiful butterfly).

Perry shared his arguments for giving nuclear tech to the Saudis.  Perry enthused over the environmental benefits of zero-emissions nuclear power.  According to the London Financial Times, which spoke to Secretary Perry during the conference:

Mr. Perry said the administration’s support for nuclear exports was part of its strategy of encouraging sales of US technology and commodities that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“You really can’t be serious about the climate and be against nuclear power,” [Secretary Perry] said.

Secretary Perry appears to be a recent enlistee in the fight against climate change.  As recently as last year, Perry said that giving up fossil fuels would be “immoral.”    This is a favorite argument of conservatives.  The upshot is that restricting use of oil, coal, and natural gas will prevent millions of people in the developing countries from climbing out of poverty. That’s just one of the many good things for which we can thank fossil fuels.  Another benefit Perry has shared is that use of fossil fuels may cut down on sexual assault.  (Don’t even ask.) [1]

If the Trump Administration has a strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this is the first time I’ve heard of it. I’ve heard other things, though, like President Trump’s dismissal of climate change as a “hoax” dreamed up by the Chinese. I’ve also heard about Trump taking the US out of the Paris Climate Accord.  Most recently, I’ve heard Trump proposing to slash the EPA budget by 31%.

Proliferation Fears and the Revenge of “Little Marco” 

The Saudi deal was in trouble even before the release of the House interim report on February 19.  Obstacles to the sale are due partly to backlash following the murder in October of US resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.  There are also worries in Congress that a reactor deal with the Saudis could lead to a Saudi nuclear bomb.

On October 31, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and four of his Republican colleagues sent a letter to the president.  The letter makes two points.  First, Trump should suspend the nuclear talks with the Saudis.  Second, the signers will oppose any deal which allows Saudi Arabia to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium.  Similarly, the bipartisan No Nuclear Weapons for Saudi Arabia Act, introduced in both chambers in December also mandates the so-called “Gold Standard” (i.e., an agreement which prohibits enrichment and reprocessing), as does a non-binding resolution introduced in the Senate on February 12, 2019. Then, on March 15, Senator Rubio and Democratic Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey, asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the proposed sale.  Trump may be regretting his “little Marco” crack from the 2016 presidential campaign.

The London Guardian correctly calls enrichment and reprocessing “established pathways to the bomb.”  Enriched to 4%, uranium can power a nuclear reactor.  Enriched to 90%, uranium can be used to make a nuclear bomb.  It was Saudi intransigence over enrichment and reprocessing that doomed a nuclear cooperation agreement under the Obama Administration.  Disturbingly, the Saudis still insist on the right to enrich and reprocess fissionable material.

There are fears that Trump might cave on the Gold Standard if it would prevent the sale.  Trump has promised to “revive and expand [the US] nuclear energy sector.”  A US sale would make millions for associates of the president.  Statements from Administration officials about the Gold Standard have been inconsistent.  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo assured the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on May 24, 2018, that the US had told the Saudis that “we want a gold-standard Section 123 Agreement from them, which would not permit them to enrich.”[2]  (Of course, “we want” is not the same as “we won’t accept anything less.”)  In his interview with the Financial Times, Perry said that the US would insist on the same terms from Saudi Arabia as it had in its 2009 nuclear cooperation agreement with the UAE, i.e., the Gold Standard.  However, according to the New York Times, in early 2018, Secretary Perry was considering an agreement which would allow the Saudis to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium after 10 to 15 years.  The Times says that in Perry’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 22, 2018, Perry “dodged a question about whether the Trump administration would insist that the kingdom be banned from producing nuclear fuel.”

Proponents of the sale contend that if the US won’t sell reactors to the Saudis, Russia will.  Insisting on the Gold Standard could drive the Saudis into the arms of the Russians.

Perry told the Financial Times that a reactor sale from the US entails much less risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons than if the Saudis purchase their reactors from Russia or China:

“I make the argument to the leadership of Saudi Arabia that to send the right message to the world, you want to be working with someone who is a very strong proponent of non-proliferation,” he said. “China and Russia are not necessarily in that camp.”

Other Concerns

Another provision of the No Nuclear Weapons for Saudi Arabia Act requires that any transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia must be approved by the House and Senate.[3]  The House Oversight Committee is concerned that a technology transfer to the Saudis would be made “without review by Congress” as required under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

The Saudi deal is rife with conflicts of interest. The House interim report relates how the Saudi deal originated with a shadowy group of retired admirals and generals called IP3 International which assembled a consortium of American nuclear development corporations.  IP3 has ties to both Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and to disgraced national security adviser General Michael Flynn.  Flynn pushed the deal as a senior adviser on Trump’s presidential campaign and on Trump’s transition team.  He continued to push the deal when he was Trump’s first national security adviser. As for Jared Kushner, a firm called Brookfield Asset Management took out a 99-year lease on a distressed Kushner property in New York City, relieving Kushner of more than a billion dollars in debt. Brookfield is a part owner of Westinghouse Co., one of the firms in the IP3 consortium of nuclear developers.  In addition, Kushner is close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler.

Selling nuclear tech to Saudi Arabia is a very bad idea.  Even worse, IP3 sees the sale to the kingdom as just one part of a “Marshall Plan for the Middle East” which envisions building dozens of nuclear power plants throughout the region.  Each one of those power plants will be a potential factory for manufacturing atomic bombs.  This could be Trump’s most disastrous deal ever.

Notes.

[1]  Okay, if you must know, Perry said in 2017 that fossil fuels can bring electric light to African villages, thus thwarting rapists, who operate in darkness.

[2]  Nicholas L. Miller and Tristan A. Volpe, Abstinence or Tolerance: Managing Nuclear Ambitions in Saudi Arabia, 41:2 WASHINGTON QUARTERLY (Summer 2018), page 29.

[3]  In a reference to section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, SenatorRubio’s website explains that “Typically, 123 agreements—which authorize U.S. companies to sell nuclear technology abroad—go into effect unless veto-proof majorities of Congress pass joint resolutions of disapproval.”

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Charles Pierson is a lawyer and a member of the Pittsburgh Anti-Drone Warfare Coalition. E-mail him at Chapierson@yahoo.com.

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