US Nuclear Energy Policy & Khashoggi Murder: Appeasement Or Threat?

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The horrific murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October continues to fester, and some of the blowback has been falling on the shoulders of the US tech sector. Rightfully so, considering the connection between Saudi wealth, Japan-based SoftBank, and Silicon Valley A-listers. Meanwhile, US President* Donald Trump has dismissed evidence that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was directly responsible for the crime, but a recent nuclear energy announcement could indicate that someone in Trump’s cabinet is stirring the pot.

Khashoggi Or Not, Trump Administration Still Sharing Nuclear Energy Love With Saudi Arabia…

There is also a nuclear weapons angle to the story, but for now lets focus on the nuclear energy angle.

Despite its vast solar and wind resources, Saudi Arabia has expressed a growing interest in building a fleet of power plants fueled by nuclear energy.

CleanTechnica has been among those taking note, though not in any particular depth — until earlier this week, when the US Department of Energy released a readout of Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s recent visit with the Saudi Minister of Energy, as well as the CEO of Saudi Aramco and other officials.

The readout hit the Intertubes just about the time word leaked out that there is now a written transcript of the audiotape that recorded the last minutes of Khashoggi’s life.

Anyone — even those who do not speak Arabic — can now read and understand the last words that Khashoggi screamed out in the course of his murder.

So, was the readout yet another example of Secretary Perry tone deafness? Or was it yet another one of his curiously timed missives that undercut White House policy even while seeming to affirm it.

Here, you do the math. This is where the readout deals with the visit to Saudi Arabia (Perry also went to Qatar on the same trip):

…the Secretary expressed that the United States continues to view Saudi Arabia as an important ally, particularly in the energy space. Perry and Al-Falih spoke about last week’s OPEC announcement of production cuts and Perry reiterated the need for stable supply and market values. They also discussed the 2018 increase in Saudi oil production and the impact it has had on world markets in the wake of the Iran sanctions.

And, here’s the summary message (emphasis added):

Secretary Perry underscored the message that he carries all over the world: any nation seeking to develop a truly safe, clean, and secure nuclear energy program should turn to American companies who have the ability to provide the technology, knowledge, and experience that are essential to achieving that goal.

The US nuclear energy industry is in a state of near collapse, domestically speaking. As with coal power, the only hope for growth is to export the technology elsewhere…but the readout makes it clear there are standards to be met.

…Or Not.

The readout is not particularly startling in and of itself, though there is a lot to chew on between the lines.

What really sticks out is the summary message. It could be read in two different ways.

Number one, Secretary Perry was blithely pitching the US nuclear energy industry to the Saudi government, ignoring — as per White House policy — the latest revelations about the Khashoggi murder.

That would be consistent with the Rick Perry, who toes the Trump line on a whole host of other issues, inside and outside of the energy space.

Number two relates to the other Rick Perry — the one who has consistently pushed for the Department of Energy’s scientific and renewable energy missions, even when (or perhaps especially when) those missions clash with Trump’s anti-science, pro-coal rhetoric.

In this scenario, the nuclear message is not a pitch. It’s practically the opposite: a reminder that the US holds the nuclear energy cards.

To be clear, the US doesn’t hold all the nuclear energy cards, but it does hold enough of them to make trouble. Earlier this fall, for example, the Trump administration announced new restrictions on nuclear technology exports to China. Though some have downplayed the impact, that’s gotta hurt.

As applied to the Saudi government, Perry could wield the authority of his agency under its nonproliferation mission as a stick, not a carrot.

Or, maybe not. If you apply Occam’s razor to the readout, it is just what it is: a message that, Khashoggi or not, it’s business as usual between Saudi Arabia and the US.

What do you think? Drop us a note in the comment thread!

The Nuclear Energy Connection

Either way, that brings us around to the idea that the corporate world needs to step up and press for meaningful action on the Khashoggi case, since the White House is falling down on the job.

In particular, the tech sector is feeling the pressure not only because of its financial ties to Saudi Arabia, but also because of the high profile of its biggest players.

That brings us right back around to the nuclear energy angle, where the US nuclear company TerraPower has been making waves.

TerraPower was formed back in 2006 and crossed the CleanTechnica radar during COP 2015, when it popped up in relation to a newly launched investor umbrella organization called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition.

Breakthrough is a tech incubator with a focus on clean energy and rapid decarbonization, and nuclear energy makes the cut.

As a global organization, Breakthrough can provide TerraPower with a platform for pitching its technology overseas — a key consideration, given the morbid state of demand for new nuclear power plants here in the US.

So far TerraPower has been focusing on foreign markets, particularly China, for its new technology.

If all of this is beginning to ring some bells, that’s where the tech and Silicon Valley connections kick in.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates is financial backer of TerraPower and chairman of its board.

Gates is also the chair of the Breakthrough Coalition’s Breakthrough Energy Ventures, where you’ll find a host of other familiar top-dollar investors with an interest in decarbonization including Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Vinod Khosla, and Michael Bloomberg.

Saudi Arabia is represented among Breakthrough members through Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, who is Chairman of Alwaleed Philanthropies and a supporter of Gates’s “giving pledge.”

Saudi Arabia is also represented among the 24 countries (including the EU) that support the Mission Innovation clean energy initiative, which is in turn receives considerable support from Breakthrough, so there’s that.

Not for nothing, but as of last August the Department of Energy has supported a TerraPower molten salt reactor project with $28 million in cost-shared funds.

When Will The Silicon Valley Crickets Stop Chirping And Start Acting?

All this is by way of saying that when it comes to the Saudi government, the Khashoggi murder, and the cash flow, all roads lead back to Silicon Valley and the US tech sector.

The New York Times raised a red flag on Saudi financial ties to Silicon Valley last year. Among other developments since then, Tesla has been ramping up its profile in the country, and Google has expressed interest in building data centers there.

Perhaps it’s not fair for the tech sector to take all the heat, but on the other hand these are the guys who promised to make life better for millions if not billions of people all over the world. More is expected of them than, say, the CEO of a local pest control company.

The Trump family’s financial ties with Saudi Arabia seem to be the driving force behind Trump’s response to the Khashoggi murder, and now it seems those same ties have silenced the US tech sector.

The fact is that the Khashoggi murder is not going away. New details about the murder are emerging on a regular basis, and even Trump’s Republican allies have finally stirred into action.

In the latest development, today the US Senate is reportedly set to debate cutting off US support for the Saudi-lead war in Yemen. The measure has been linked directly to outrage over the country’s role in the Khashoggi killing.

Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is reaching out to TerraPower for comment, so stay tuned for more on that.

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*Developing story.

Image: Advanced reactor at INL via US Department of Energy.

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3234 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey