In the latest you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up event, Saudi Arabia’s furious campaign of economic retaliation against Canada — in response to Canadian foreign minister Chrystia Freeland’s criticism of the arrest of Saudi women’s rights activists — threatens to dash Westinghouse’s hopes for a lucrative nuclear deal with the Saudis. And, ironically, it may help to preserve tough rules on nuclear exports (“gold standard”) that the Saudi deal might otherwise scuttle. The White House has been working hard for months to negotiate a U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation agreement to permit the sale of Westinghouse nuclear power plants to Saudi Arabia. Although headquartered in Pennsylvania, it was until recently owned by Toshiba Nuclear Energy Holdings. But it is headquartered near Pittsburgh and it has over 5,000 US employees in Pennsylvania, an important political state. The Saudis had announced they would start with a twin-unit nuclear plant and claimed they would go on to build a dozen more. That they would do so, and that they would choose Westinghouse was always implausible — it made much more sense for the Saudis to hire a South Korean construction team, and there are cheaper alternatives to nuclear power. Last fall, the White House was reported to be “flexible” on the gold standard, a critical nonproliferation issue. This concerned whether to leave open in the U.S.-Saudi agreement the possibility of the Saudis reprocessing their spent (irradiated) fuel to extract the contained plutonium and, even more importantly, operating uranium enrichment plants. Such enrichment plants could also produce highly enriched uranium. Plutonium and highly enriched uranium are, of course, the basic nuclear explosives in nuclear weapons. Conceding that Saudi Arabia had the right to produce these explosives would be a major setback for US nonproliferation policy. Betting within the Beltway has been that the Trump White House, in its eagerness for the putatively lucrative deal, might soften the nonproliferation rules for the Saudis. Now, however, the Saudi hysterical response to Canadian criticism has upended the betting. The Saudis appear to have left themselves no room for retreat. Nor does it seem that Canada will back down. If that remains so, it should become clear that the Westinghouse option is dead and that it will not help to weaken U.S. nuclear export rules. In that case, the nonproliferation gold standard may be left standing, which would be a clear win for nonproliferation.
The Hill 13th Aug 2018 read more »