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The Sunshine Patriot: Edward Markey Explains Energy Options to Saudi Arabia

markey Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) let fly an op-ed in the Wall Street journal today entitled “Why Is Bush Helping Saudi Arabia Build Nukes?” that glides around some very odd desert lands. First, he dings President Bush for going nuclear instead of solar, noticing that the kingdom has lots of sunshine:

Have Ms. Rice, Mr. Bush or Saudi leaders looked skyward? The Saudi desert is under almost constant sunshine. If Mr. Bush wanted to help his friends in Riyadh diversify their energy portfolio, he should have offered solar panels, not nuclear plants.

Second, he doubts that Saudi Arabia has good intentions, especially with Iran nearby:

An Iranian nuclear weapon would radically alter the region's balance of power, and could prove to be the match that lights the tinderbox. By signing this agreement with the U.S., Saudi Arabia is warning Iran that two can play the nuclear game.

And third, those ingrate Saudis are taking advantage of us while they have us over an <ahem> barrel. (Yes, we will be here all week – tip the waitress, she works hard for her money.)

While the scorching Saudi Arabian sun heats sand dunes instead of powering photovoltaic panels, millions of Americans will fork over $4 a gallon without realizing that their gas tank is fueling a nascent nuclear arms race.

Well, where to start? It’s practically a regular feature here at Nuclear Notes that the Arabian peninsula has become a real market-in-the-making for nuclear energy, and America, France, Great Britain and Russia are all up for partnerships. We agree with Markey that Iran has made the atmosphere a trifle thick, and gas prices thicker even. But the goal among the desert regions has been to pursue nuclear energy to free up more oil for export and to prepare for the world that’s coming – one that finds its way away from oil. After all, Markey sees it coming – heck, he wants to hasten it – so why shouldn’t Saudi Arabia?

A larger issue, though, and odd for a Democrat, is the notion that Saudi Arabia or any country should take from America only what we might want to give it. We either partner with Saudi Arabia, offer advice if it partners with France or Russia, or whistle in the dark while it pursue its own agenda. Any of these choices is legitimate; whichever America chooses, Saudi Arabia remains a sovereign nation, an ally America has counted on, and beholden to America’s whim only as far as it suits its own self-interest. 

By now, we hope the words nuclear and sinister have lost any quality as synonyms. Markey is looking backwards when he uses nuclear energy as a stalking horse for proliferation. It isn’t and imagining otherwise allows bad actors to seize the debate about nuclear energy through fear rather than logic.

An even larger issue, and odd for any responsible politician, is the lumping of all Arab countries into a ragbag of discontent and incipient bad intentions. It’s like Canada being “blamed” for the Iraq War and tarnished forever because of it. Saudi Arabia and its neighbors Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the UAE are working as a team with the International Atomic Energy Agency to get things rolling and as we reported awhile ago, it looks like Dubai (with Great Britain as a partner) will be the first to get a nuclear energy plant humming. Does Markey want to discuss the sinister intentions of Dubai? Why, it has the second happiest place in the world within its borders.

We respect Rep. Markey quite a lot. He may sometimes roost too comfortably within the nanny-state wing of the Democratic party - one of his big issues currently is childhood obesity, leading to a letter by him to Nestle asking it not to target advertising at children since a study shows a link between advertising and overconsumption of things like yummy Nestle candy bars. Markey might be better advised to ask Birds Eye or a similar company to start targeting children (broccoli can be cool if the ads are made well; Nestle probably has the template for doing that.)

But Markey’s also genuinely grappling with issues of importance in a way that makes sense or at the very least points productive directions forward. His Cap and Invest bill (link to his home page – a bunch of pdfs are there about his bill – we always get annoyed when linked directly to a pdf) would auction carbon permits and reinvest the monies into new technologies. He really likes cellulosic ethanol, though renewables in general suit him.

Picture of Rep. Edward Markey. At least with a cup in his hand, he can’t point, which politicians do more than hunting dogs.


tarpon said…
One word, 'drill'. Markey is a big Democrap doofus.

If CO2 is your religious alter then nuclear is your answer. Windmills are for Kennedy's backyard and fools.

Pay more in taxes, so government can pretend to control the weather. Before long, even the most ignorant see the scam for what it is.
gunter said…
It's no surprise that a Nuclear Notes' blogger would try to dumb down the risks from loading up the Middle East with enriched uranium and plutonium.

When Flanagan tries to fob off the threat with the claim that no reasonable person still thinks that there is a link to the bomb or that only "backwards looking" critics raise the issue to foster fear, he forgets that the just last September the Israeli air force plastered a not-so-clandestine Syrian reactor construction site.

What was that---a mistaken attack on a chocolate factory?
Joseph Somsel said…
Saudi Arabia's self-interest in nuclear power plants should be evident. They can otherwise use their natural gas resources for more profitable export products like LNG and GTL.

As an exporter of safe, clean nuclear technology and an importer of fossil fuels, the US shares the nuclear self-interest of Saudi Arabia.

After long exposure to Mr. Markey's public career, I can NOT share Mr. Flanagan's sense of respect for the politician. His motto seems to be "Sound bites before logic or facts."
Mark Flanagan said…
To Joseph - I respect almost anyone who puts his life into the wiz-o-matic that is national politics. If you want to see your best intentions mulched into bloody tatters at light speed, go into politics. As I said in the post, I'm not Markey's biggest fan, but I do respect his willingness to take it and keep dishing it out for what he assumes is our good. (He does make libertarianism seem a better approach to policy via negative example.)

To Gunter - Jeez, non-starter. So far as I've read, Syria was partnering up with North Korea to build weaponry in secret. Nothing there says nuclear energy as a feint to proliferation to me - it says bad actors doing exactly what they set out to do.

You're also following Markey's lead in throwing all the Middle East into the same sinister hopper. Our own government (sans Markey) finds that naive - partnering with Saudi Arabia and all - and I see no evidence to suggest Syria's bad intentions spill over to Saudi Arabia or Dubai or their pursuit of nuclear energy.

We expect better from you, Gunter.
Gunter said…
Syria is one of the 13 Middle Eastern countries that has an eye on becoming a nuclear power.

The easiest way to build a bomb is to build the nuclear power infrastructure around it. Whether its clandestine or not (North Korea signed the NPT built their reactors, dropped out of the NPT and generated their atomic weapons.

Same can be true for the Middle East.
Joseph Somsel said…

Sorry but I have higher expectations of people on the government payroll, especially if they are elected. I expect them to show more intellectual honesty than I seen from Rep. Markey.

But your personal respect is yours to offer or withhold.
Matthew66 said…
tarpon, actually Kennedy doesn't want windmills in his backyard, or at least off Cape Cod where they might disturb the vista from the Kennedy compound at Hyannis.

BTW Gunter, no country that has developed nuclear weapons has needed nuclear power stations to do it.
Anonymous said…
Actually Gunter you are wrong: *all* the nations that developed a bomb did so by a *separate* infrastructure than used for the nuclear energy. If you know something about isotopes involved, you'd understand why.

Mark Flanagan said…
Joseph - I give. My attitude in general is to respect the idea of public servants and go from there, which may be a bit too wishy-washy from your perspective. But your view is certainly valid, too, if a little unyielding from my perspective. If we disagree, it's really only by degrees. Boy, people really don't like Ed Markey, do they? He must do a really good job of bringing home the oink or something.
Gunter - Total no give. I don't think you've made your argument or responded to the actual content of the post. The proliferation argument against nuclear energy is just a flat clanger with no practical basis. We really have to move past the energy/weapons association thing: a country doesn't have to pretend to want a plant to get a bomb and there's no logical progression from a plant to a bomb. They're motivated by different impulses entirely.
To tarpon: Actually, windmills are for Bush's backyard. He's got one chugging away at the Crawford ranch. Gotta watch your ideological p's and q's.
gunter said…
You gentlemen forgot to add that India's "Smiling Buddha" nuclear weapons test was a "Peaceful Nuclear Explosion," from plutonium generated in the 40 MW CIRUS (Canadian-Indian Reactor, United States).

As a result Pakistan put its own shiny new 137 MW CANDU reactor to work developing its own nuclear weapons thus making the Canadian nuclear power program with US help complicit in touching off the nuclear arms race between Pakistan and India.

Efforts to finesse nuclear power development in the Middle East and the resulting regional nuclear arms race are no different or excusable.

More nuclear power makes the world a more dangerous place.
Nick G said…

Any thoughts about the relationship between Iran's enrichment, ostensibly for peaceful power generation, and the Bush administration's push against it?
Anonymous said…
Gunter, CIRUS was a small special research reactor, not a commercial power plant. it didn't even produce electricity.

Pakistan developed its nuclear weapons with the help of a certain A.Q. Khan, indeed secretly and independently. They didn't use Pu from any of the plants, including the Karachi plant you mention. They used highly enriched uranium.

Any other examples? :-)


PS: your knowledge (or rather the lack of it) about the issue is really impressive, especially as you are a big shot amount the antinuclear fundamentalists, if I understand correctly.
Sovietologist said…
Uh, that's not quite how Pakistan built the bomb.

Historically, the Pakistani nuclear program has emphasized the use of highly-enriched uranium produced in Kahuta. Analysts estimate that nearly all existing Pakistani warheads use HEU. A program to produce weapons-grade plutonium was initiated in the mid-1980s and led to the construction of the Khusab heavy-water plutonium production reactor, which went critical in 1998. This indigenous design has the theoretical capacity to produce enough plutonium for 1-2 weapons a year, and may have been operating well below capacity. As a result, Pakistan probably only possesses enough Pu-239 for a handful of bombs. The Pakistani's CANDU reactor in Karachi, meanwhile, is subject to international safeguards. It has never produced material for weapons.

If the Middle East is no different, I see no reason why IAEA safeguards can't keep civilian nuclear facilities there from producing weapons material.
Nick G said…

Let me ask again - any thoughts about the relationship between Iran's enrichment, ostensibly for peaceful power generation, and the Bush administration's push against it?
gunter said…
The point is, early on, the Canadian 'peaceful' nuclear reactor program enabled the southeast asian arms race.

It is a tragic mistake to now enable a Middle East nuclear arms race.

There can be no disputing that the building blocks of nuclear weapons are interchangeable and interdependent within the nuclear power program infrastructure.

A typical 1000 MW commercial power reactor as being offered to Middle Eastern countries generates enough plutonium each year for 40 nuclear bombs.

Uranium enrichment is needed for both power reactors and weapons development and by repetitive enrichment process for 3-5% enrichment for reactor fuel a nation can go to 90% weapons grade uranium---i.e. the very concern for US and Israeli saber rattling over the blurred line between Iran's "peaceful" nuclear program and nuclear weapons development.

As far as the NPT and IAEA goes-- what prevents countries from generating nuclear materials as NPT signatories and then leaving to develop weapons like North Korea did? Furthermore, the historical evidence shows that nuclear weapons programs are politically operating outside of the IAEA oversight and control with NPT non-signatories.
Anonymous said…
"A typical 1000 MW commercial power reactor as being offered to Middle Eastern countries generates enough plutonium each year for 40 nuclear bombs."

Whoever told you that doesn't know what they are talking about.
Mark Flanagan said…
To Nick g - We've addressed Iran in the past and will again. Last I caught up with the story, Iran was ducking the IAEA and then leaving it completely dissatisfied. We'll always bow to IAEA on these issues and follow their conclusions unless something is seriously fishy. So, assuming I haven't missed something, at present, Iran is misbehaving rather badly and, worse, Russia, which would like to open nuclear trade with the U.S., is in the thick of it. We'll come back around to this with a more detailed blog post later, but I need to get back up to speed on it.
GRLCowan said…
There can be no disputing that the building blocks of nuclear weapons are interchangeable and interdependent within the nuclear power program infrastructure.

Since it is not true, this can be disputed.

A typical 1000 MW commercial power reactor as being offered to Middle Eastern countries generates enough plutonium each year for 40 nuclear bombs.

A typical car can be converted to a four-to-six-barrel cannon. Now, it's true that half the barrels face back at you, but what are you going to do? Buy or build actual guns?

Uranium enrichment is needed for both power reactors and weapons development

It is needed for neither. Oil-and-gas money needs a tool that is not too good to be used; what does it do with a tool that, through misuse, it has ruined?
Sovietologist said…
nick g-
Natanz is... a very suspicious facility, to say the least. Normal civilian enrichment plants aren't hardened and buried underground. And unlike reactor-grade plutonium, HEU is a very attractive material inexperienced bomb-builders. The Russian position on this is that they'd like for the Iranians to be dependent on them for fuel, but would not be happy to lose an international customer for their VVER reactor. The idea that enrichment should be concentrated in a few "responsible" countries has been the historical Soviet/Russian position on these issues. The VVER reactor itself is a minimal proliferation risk, in my view, as in order to produce weapons-usable material it would need to be operated in a very eccentric fashion that would alert the international community. On one hand, the Iranians have the right under the NPT to have an enrichment facility. If the program were operated in a less suspicious-looking way with full international supervision, I wouldn't regard it as a problem. But Natanz doesn't exactly give the impression of an innocent civilian facility. Since when do ordinary enrichment plants need to be buried 8 meters underground?

At the same time, Iranian experience suggests that opposing civilian nuclear development won't do much to forestall Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Say we convinced the Russians to cease nuclear assistance to Iran. Say we sent B-2 bombers into the country to reduce Bushehr to rubble. After destroying their civilian nuclear infrastructure, they would be years further away from civilian nuclear power... but because Natanz is hardened against air attack, their military nuclear potential would be relatively intact. I don't think we'll accomplish much by refusing to sell LWRs to the Middle East. I'm optimistic that an effective system of international controls could be created to provide fuel services to these countries while forestalling proliferation.
Nick G said…
"I'm optimistic that an effective system of international controls could be created to provide fuel services to these countries while forestalling proliferation."

hmmmm. But you're not including Iran in that, right?

If Iran wants to develop nuclear weapons, do you think the rest of the world has any effective way to prevent it? I suppose several bunker-buster bombs on Natanz might do it, but that's a mighty aggressive move...
Sovietologist said…
I think that Iran could be included in an international system of fuel cycle services, but that the Iranian government would have to make a number of concessions in order for this to be workable. It's rumored that there is serious disagreement within the Iranian government regarding these issues, so I can't offer a real assessment of how likely this would be. Middle Eastern countries are absolutely infuriated by the way in which the west turns a blind eye to the Israeli nuclear program, and their proposals tend to hang on this issue.

As for Natanz, it's hardened enough that conventional ordinance would have a difficult time destroying it. It would not be at all like the Israeli attacks on reactor facilities in Iraq and Syria--even large bunker-busters couldn't be trusted to destroy the facility. (There are also rumors that the Iranians might be constructing large-scale enrichment facilities elsewhere.)If the Iranians are determined to get the bomb, there is only one surefire way to prevent it--attacking Iran with tactical nuclear weapons. I have to say I don't think that option is really worth the cost, so I think it would be best to try and negotiate with the Iranians on these issues. It's imperfect, to be sure, but it's about the best we can do.

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