The United States is trying to develop a nuclear cooperation agreement (123 agreement) with Saudi Arabia. The stories (another) focus on whether such an agreement would limit Saudi Arabia’s access to uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing, two technologies that can produce materials for nuclear weapons.
Let’s look at two other factors. 1) Although Saudi Arabia has had big ambitions for nuclear power, starting from sixteen reactors and now down to two, it is not clear that they can afford those reactors and have no administrative support for them. 2) Westinghouse, the company being pushed by the United States, is in no position to build those reactors.
In September 2014, Saudi Arabia announced plans to build 16 reactors by 2032. At that time, the price of oil was $100 a barrel. In January 2015, the price of oil dropped to $60 a barrel and Saudi Arabia delayed their plan for the reactors. Financial uncertainties continue. In 2017, Saudi Arabia announced a revised plan for two reactors of a size corresponding to that of reactors being built by South Korea in the UAE. South Korea is also building a smaller reactor for electrical power and desalination in Saudi Arabia. Thus, South Korea is in a favorable postion to bid on Saudi Arabia’s reactors.
Westinghouse is fresh off a major failure at the V. C. Summer nuclear plant in South Carolina and a consequent bankruptcy filing. A report prepared by Fluor for Westinghouse as the project soured shows extremely poor management. Another report, by Bechtel, found “flawed construction plans, faulty designs, inadequate management of contractors, low worker morale and high [worker] turnover.”
What is Saudi Arabia attempting to accomplish with this request for bids? And why is the United States offering up a bankrupt company and, potentially, a weak 123 agreement?
Development of nuclear power in Saudi Arabia makes some sense; climate change makes burning fossil fuels less desirable, although as the rest of the world takes steps in this direction, Saudi Arabia’s budget difficulties will increase. Although South Korea appears to have a lock on the proposal, Saudi Arabia may be looking to learn more about nuclear technologies from other sources.
For two reactors, there is little reason for Saudi Arabia to have the capability to enrich uranium, which it wants to keep open in any 123 agreement. Additional facilities would be needed for it to manufacture fuel from that enriched uranium. A few years ago, the United States signed an unusually restrictive 123 agreement with the UAE, in which the UAE agreed to forego enrichment and reprocessing technology. This has come to be called the “Gold Standard,” an ideal for nonproliferation.
It may be that Saudi Arabia wants to retain the possibility of enrichment to hedge against Iran. Another possibility is that Saudi Arabia wants proof of wide-ranging support from the United States. Thus, American and Saudi interests in a 123 agreement conflict. However, the American nuclear industry badly needs new contracts, so that and President Donald Trump’s fondness for Saudi Arabia may override the nonproliferation considerations.
Saudi Arabia is concerned about rival Iran’s investigations into nuclear weapons technology. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear agreement between Iran and six other countries, including the United States, limits Iran’s work on nuclear issues, but Iran continues enrichment at a low level, which is allowed to increase with time.
Russia and China would like to supply reactors to Saudi Arabia. Their agreements would be less restrictive of enrichment and reprocessing than a 123 agreement would. A 123 agreement that was less than the Gold Standard would be more desirable for nonproliferation.
It’s also worth asking whether this effort is somehow connected with an effort by Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security Advisor, to sell Russian reactors to Saudi Arabia. In 2015, Flynn was working on a US-Russia project to sell sixteen reactors to Saudi Arabia. The American firms he was working for planned to supply security to the reactors and their fuel transport. The Saudi order for sixteen reactors, however, had been canceled four months before Flynn started his project. There is much more about the Flynn deal that does not make sense, including that he was working with Russian firms to sell their reactors to Saudi Arabia.
The Trump administration has been very friendly to Saudi Arabia. It was the first country that Trump visited after his inauguration (top photo source). Oddly, mystery professor Joseph Mifsud was there at the same time. Jared Kushner has spent significant time with Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.
There are a number of aspects to the US-Saudi 123 agreement that don’t add up. Hopefully reporters will keep looking.
Dan Yurman and I continue to discuss these questions behind the scenes. Check out his blog, Neutron Bytes, for nuclear business news.
Cross-posted to Nuclear Diner.
I can think of no reason why the Saudis would want nuclear reactors other than to develop weapons. Certainly if they wanted to supplement their oil and gas reserves with another source of energy, solar would be the logical choice – they have all the sunlight anybody could wish for and vast amounts of land on which to site panels (there’s even a part of the country named The Empty Quarter).
I know it’s not true, I know it’s just the angle between camera and wall-hanging creating an illusion, and I know it’s trivial, but damn…looks like the guy standing on Trump’s left is wearing a party hat.
Really puts a different spin on the photo for me.
Is there any viable US competition for a bid from Westinghouse? I mean, some other US entity that could complete this transaction/construction.
That’s a hell of a finisher for this post.
Mike in NC
Saudi Arabia is a vast desert wasteland where they could erect thousands of wind turbines. Seems much easier than building nuclear reactors.
This. Nuclear power makes no sense at all for Saudi Arabia. Renewable energy is much more sensible both from an economic standpoint and from a security standpoint, since a nuclear plant would be a terrorist magnet. At this point, renewable energy would also be much faster to bring online. The only reason I can imagine for them wanting nuclear technology is to build, or have the capability of building, a bomb.
If the shoe was on the other foot there would be Fox News alerts that Hillary Clinton wants to supply ISIS with nuclear weapons.
He totally is. In honor of the Clown Prince of the US. And the thing he’s holding is one of those party favors that you blow into and it extends/unrolls and sometimes makes a party noise.
@Corner Stone: The American nuclear industry is in bad shape. Their projects, at best, have been significantly above cost and much longer than scheduled. A number of startup companies are developing new, smaller designs, but they are not in a position to bid.
@Mike in NC: I would think solar makes more sense in this environment?
That disgusting face Trump is making in the pic is the exact expression he is pictured displaying in the Oval Office with his two Russian buddies. He seems delighted, if that is an emotion anyone believes him capable of. Hmmm, Saudis and Russians…wonder why he’s “happiest” around authoritarian regimes?
@Mike in NC:
In between fields of solar panels.
Snarki, child of Loki
Could be solar is better; it depends on how solar panels stand up to sandstorms, I guess.
I hope that sword they gave Trump to hold had a rubber blade. I wouldn’t trust him with anything more dangerous.
Has Trump ever made a face that was not disgusting?
@Snarki, child of Loki:
If sandstorm damage is an issue with solar panels, I guess Mike in NC’s suggestion of wind turbines #4 might work better.
@Amir Khalid: @Amir Khalid: Sandstorms do bad things to wind turbines, too.
@Snarki, child of Loki: I think renewables have an image problem “hey, buy our oil while we run on renewables. Do as we say, not as we do.” And little doubt they want nuclear power for reasons other than electricity.
Who are the big players in nuclear power-station tech? I’d guess maybe Japan and Germany, possibly Russia and France.
Great picture, although I would prefer one of Trump boggled by The Orb.
When I think of the Sauds with nukes I ponder the birthplace of Al Qaeda and the 9/11 hijackers, the inherent instability of monarchies, the really great relationships among that country and Israel and Iran, while nuclear Pakistan views events from the east A question bubbles to the surface: What could possibly go wrong?
Egypt’s going to get one, too,
Just to use on You-Know-Who
We’ll try to stay serene and calm
When Alabama gets The Bomb
If you didn’t want a breeder reactor, there’s CANDU.
@Snarki, child of Loki:
There’s also solar-thermal in lieu of PV panels.
I thought they just ran everything off the glowing orb.
@Mike in NC:
That wind would probably come with a lot of sand in it. No bueno.
China is now building more nuclear power plants than anyone. South Korea, as I pointed out, is in the best position to get a Saudi contract. Russia wants to sell nuclear power plants to everyone, but they have been adding financial incentives that they haven’t always been able to carry through on. Also, with their history of using energy as a political lever, people distrust their fuel supply. Ukraine now buys nuclear fuel from the US for its Soviet-built reactors. France has been doing about as badly as Westinghouse, just racked up a big failure in Finland, which is buying its next reactor from Russia.
@trollhattan: That was my second choice, but I just couldn’t stand it. I try not to use pictures of Trump, but there’s a purpose in using this one.
Just One More Canuck
I’m sure Israel must be thrilled with this news
@Miss Bianca: Once seen – cannot be unseen.
@Mike in NC:
And solar arrays. Cooling nuclear reactors in the dessert doesn’t seem like a practical solution to me.
The Moar You Know
@Amir Khalid: India’s been doing yeoman’s work in developing thorium reactors (and that’s a great idea) but I don’t know if they’re building outside the country.
@Geeno: And upon closer inspection, it’s an *American flag-themed party hat*. The mind reels.
The Saudi need for reactors is because, frankly, they want – just like Japan did with the Fukushima plant that had uranium enriched (!) with plutonium – to keep nuclear weapon development available. As some said already, they are the a good place for massive solar based power generation (more like what California did – solar driven stream. Solar cell efficiency drops rapidly in the extreme heat common to that area of the world.) Such a plant driving a desalination plant for fresh water would be their best use for such a power source, not nuclear with the issue of waste fuel.
You mean the bit of the US flag that looks like a pointy hat in that photo? I had to embiggen the picture in order to figure out what it was — looked like party gear to me, too!
@Doug R: Really the ideal nuclear reactor on all counts: simple fuel (un-enriched!), most safe possible design, low manpower cost to run, and least costly reactor. If it wasn’t for our need to build sub reactors, no sane person here would want any other reactor.
@Just One More Canuck: Israel seems to be completely short term reactionary these days. They hate Iran, Saudi Arabia hates Iran. Therefore, let the Saudis develop the bomb! Sheesh, I am old enough to remember when Israel almost shut down the US government because we were planning to sell AWACS to the Saudis….
Saudi Arabia is investing in solar and wind. They may still want some nuclear power as a hedge.
Not anymore. They’re continuing to service existing projects, but they aren’t building any new reactors, either the original CANDU design or the newer Advanced CANDU Reactor.
@Corner Stone: I agree with others that this seems to me to be most clearly seen as a vehicle for KSA to have a route to nuclear weapons to counter Iran. They should be investing in solar and wind in a big way – it’s hard to imagine a better place for it (assuming sandstorms can be handled or avoided).
Westinghouse hasn’t been a “US entity” for quite a while. JapanTimes:
I’m the suspicious type, so the VC funding and 3:1 debt to equity stuff and refinancing machinations stuff makes my hair stand on end, but who knows….
I hope someone trying to figure out all this is following the money in all these moving parts, especially given Flynn’s efforts.
Cooling nuclear reactors in the dessert is never a good idea.
It’s almost as if nuclear power isn’t nearly as cheap as its proponents claim.
Any Trump photo is a heavy trigger to many. One must be judicious.
You don’t put them in the middle of the desert. You put them on the coast, where they can take advantage of the ocean as a heat sink.
They should get a coal plant. I’m informed those are great for “base load.”
The upside to this is in a few short years you will have prawns the size of chihuahuas.
@Another Scott: I was surprised when Cheryl mentioned the US bid was from Westinghouse because I remembered some of their difficulties. But I didn’t bother looking into what exactly had happened to them. The nuclear plant construction industry is not one I follow all that much.
Unless you’re doing something very wrong*, there should be negligible radiation leakage in the cooling water. The water that cools the reactor is what tends to get radioactive. It is run through a heat exchanger to generate the steam that drives the plant turbines. The cooling water is used through another heat exchanger to cool the steam. So both heat exchangers have to leak before you get radiation into the sea water.
*Which, given the history of nuclear power, is a distinct possibility.
@Corner Stone: If you are muslim you aren’t supposed to eat prawns.
@Roger Moore: CANDUs are heavy-water reactors and hence can be repurposed to produce weapons-grade plutonium if the operators are willing to fiddle with operational cycles and try and hoodwink or buy off IAEA inspections.
The main reason Saudi and the UAE and other oil-producing states such as Iran are interested in nukes for power generation is that at the moment they are burning their main sales product to produce electricity. Oil is an extractive industry, pull it out of the ground and burn it at home and there’s less left for current and future sales. Ditto for gas, the reason Russia is bringing a new fleet of VVER-1200 reactors online since they’d rather sell their gas to Germany and other nations than burn it themselves to keep the lights on.
The four reactors being built by South Korea in the UAE are coming in on-time on-budget. The more cynical industry observers are wondering what corners the notoriously corrupt South Koreans are cutting to achieve this remarkable feat.
@Sab: Why not? I don’t think Muslims have the same restrictions that Jewish people do, except for pork.
I’ve got this vision of a nuclear reactor cooling on top of a huge vat of ice cream.
Cooling nuclear reactors in the desert doesn’t seem like a practical solution to [email protected]MomSense:
Important point: when there was drought in France and the rivers were low, they had to limit power due to the lack of enough cooling water.
Luckily there is plenty of cold water in Saudi Arabia.
It still seems suspicious when renewable energy is now cheaper and avoids nuclear power’s notorious risk of catastrophic failure.
(Homer Simpson voice) Mmm, Uranium Ripple . . .
Wide ranging tangent here: The gov of West Virginia is a coal baron. He’s willing to give teachers a nice raise if he can get a tax on natural gas. This sounds pretty corrupt, but is it just me?
It actually makes some kind of sense. As our blogmaster points out, the gas is there, so it’s not as if the gas companies can go elsewhere, especially after the wells have already been drilled. And they need money to pay for the teachers’ raises, so there’s a sensible reason for needing a tax increase. On top of that, both coal and gas prices are set on a global market, so it’s not as if a new tax in West Virginia is going to do much to change coal’s failing economic position.
Funny about that. I’ve eaten prawns and other shellfish all my life. Nobody ever taught me they were haram. But I know there are Muslims who don’t. It varies with which Imam from 12 centuries ago your people consider authoritative.
@schrodingers_cat: Kosher is generally the same as halal. I’d feel safe eating kosher meat. I’m not familiar enough with the kosher rules to say what the differences are.
@Roger Moore: @Roger Moore: Renewables sometimes don’t work. Britain has about 13GW dataplate of wind turbine generators both onshore and offshore. I’ve seen this fleet of wind turbines produce only 500MW for hours at a time, I’ve seen it bottom out at 50MW for a short period. It averages about 27-30% of the dataplate figure but that’s only an average, sometimes it’s more and sometimes it’s less. The demand is always there though and if renewables can’t deliver that demand because the wind is calm and the sun is down the solution is to burn gas in quick-start gas turbines and dump the resulting CO2 into the atmosphere. This is only possible as long as gas is abundant and cheap and people don’t care about increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
Nukes don’t have that problem, they produce their rated output until they are taken offline for refuelling, something that can be scheduled for the least inconvenient time while not dumping gigatonnes of fossil carbon into the atmosphere unlike gas-supported renewables.
Just One More Canuck
@Immanentize: the enemy of my enemy is my friend
Coal production in America increased last year, up 45 million short tons from 2016 although local consumption is slightly down by about 12 million short tons. The difference is due to increased exports. Coal is doing quite well in the US and most other places with large reserves like Australia, Germany, China etc.
@Roger Moore: I’m not opposed to the tax on natural gas, I don’t trust the guy who makes his fortune on a competing fossil fuel deciding the tax is needed. If he said raise taxes on all fossil fuel extraction I might believe he was acting in good faith.
@Another Scott: and they now own an Italian company, Financial Times –
At the local wholesale butcher’s they have the kosher certification signed by the rabbi posted on the wall right next to the halal certification signed by the imam.
@Amir Khalid: None of my Muslim friends have had restrictions about eating shellfish AFAIK. I do know about the similarities between halal and kosher meat.
Isn’t their coast very heavily developed? Not sure there is that much available area to put a bunch of nukes near the water.
I’m also thinking that if I were in the Middle East with lots of hostiles near me, I wouldn’t want big nuclear targets near my population.
@Robert Sneddon: @Robert Sneddon: Isn’t that mostly strip mined from Wyoming? I believe deep mining is becoming less economically viable.
Selling nuclear reactors to KSA is such a horrifically bad idea. My ultra right wing father helped get uranium mining going in Pakistan in the 1980’s, convinced the entire time that it was just for power generation; that worked out well. I recall him loudly pontificating that Benazir Buhto was just a “flash in the pan” and that the pro-western leaders would never lose power. Is anyone here surprised he voted for our current embarrassment in chief? His political instincts were more than Fox crazy long before there was a Foxnews.
@Sab: they can sell them to Israel. Oh. Wait. Never mind
@Hoodie: The cheap stuff is stripmined from the Powder River basin in Wyoming and Montana, cost at the minehead about $10 a ton. The problem is that it’s thousands of miles from anywhere it can be burned to produce power and moving it in bulk costs money. Appalachian coal is about $50 a ton but it’s closer to the east coast and central region power stations so it costs less to transport it.
I’m not sure there’s much deep-mined coal being produced in America any more — Appalachian mining involves so-called mountaintop removal, exposing underground seams to heavily automated mining processes on the surface. The Powder River production is basin-type pit mining using dragline excavators.
Breaking: Mueller team asking if Kushner foreign business ties influenced Trump policy
MAR 2 2018, 1:54 PM ET
Jared making deals in the White House. Trump signing tax cuts for real estate developers. The first family is not draining the swamp, they’re licensing it, and branding it with great big gold letters.
— Adam Schiff (@RepAdamSchiff) March 2, 2018
There were no prepared, approved remarks for Trump to give on trade and tariffs, NBC News reports.
There was no:
No one at the following departments had been told about the policy:
— Kyle Griffin (@kylegriffin1) March 2, 2018
New: EU is preparing to impose tariffs on Harley-Davidson motorbikes, bourbon whiskey & Levi’s jeans in retaliation for Trump’s planned tariffs on steel and aluminium imports -European Commission
— Jim Sciutto (@jimsciutto) March 2, 2018
Prince Harry and fiancée Meghan to invite more than 2,500 members of the public to wedding celebrations, @MIHolden reports https://t.co/RFRwGBpaUF via @ReutersTV pic.twitter.com/e50qDlkjlT
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) March 2, 2018
@rikyrah: Looks like I picked a bad week to sign up with a Polish Country-Western Band