Source: The Washington Post |  | February 20, 2018

President Trump meets with Saudi Defense Minister and Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office of the White House on March 14, 2017. Vice President Pence, center right, and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, right, listen. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Next month, Saudi Arabia will announce the finalists of a sweepstakes. The prize? Multibillion-dollar contracts to build a pair of nuclear power reactors in desolate stretches of desert along the Persian Gulf.

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 key rules governing nuclear sales to Saudi Arabia are spelled out in a document known as a 123 agreement, named after a section in the 1954 Atomic Energy Act.

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.

Khalid Al-Falih, Saudi Arabia’s energy and natural resources minister, told Reuters on Dec. 20 that he aims to sign contracts by year’s end.

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