In an office building in Washington DC, not far from the White House, a British marine engineer and an American nuclear physicist are cooking up an engineering, economic, and political revolution in the Middle East with an emphasis on Israel. This grandiose plan was devised by ACU Strategic Partners, a holding and investment company for nuclear projects that aims to flood the Middle East (but not Israel) with dozens of nuclear reactors for producing electricity. They want to send the bill to the Gulf states, send cheap electricity to Israel from reactors in Egypt, give Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1) a contract for launching 10 satellites, and make Israeli security companies responsible for security at the reactors, thereby neutralizing Iran and bringing peace to a large part of the region.
A senior executive from this company reportedly visited Israel in 2015 for talks with Minister of National Infrastructures, Energy, and Water Resources Dr. Yuval Steinitz and officials in his ministry. Members of the ACU delegation to Israel included Lieutenant Gen. (ret.) Michael Flynn, later National Security Advisor to President Donald Trump, who was fired after admitting that he lied under oath.
"All of the Israelis we met with expressed interest in the project because of its benefit for Israel in energy and security and because of its potential contribution to stability in the Middle East, " ACU legal counsel Donald Gross, one of the company's representatives in its meetings in Israel, told "Globes." "Everyone we spoke to in Israel thought that there was an important reason that justified the country's participation ijn the project: it will provide Israel with better supervision over the nuclear reactors rapidly appearing in the region." A senior ACU executive unveiled the venture at a closed conference on nuclear topics a month ago in Herzliya.
Meanwhile, ACU is maintaining its pressure to carry out its plan. ACU managing director Alex Copson, a marine engineer, and senior scientist Dr. Thomas Cochran, a nuclear physicist, are enthusiastically pushing the almost messianic-looking plan. They see it as not only a future source of large profits for their company, but also an effective way of preventing the Middle East from becoming a nuclear swamp awash with fissionable material liable to jeopardize Israel's existence. The company naturally regards Israeli support for the plan as essential for its success, among other things because of the close ties between Jerusalem and Washington. ACU is counting on the Israeli defense companies, especially IAI, to recruit public support for the project. Efforts are being made to arouse the interest of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Cochran adds, "We are all aware that Iran's nuclear program constitutes an existential threat to Israel and a major security risk to other countries. But increased use of civilian nuclear reactors to produce electricity in other countries throughout the Middle East is liable to pose a similar threat if it is not stopped."
The main points of ACU's plan are as follows:
* A two-faceted international executive will build, operate, and manage 40 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, and Jordan.
* One facet will be a Middle Eastern power grid, with the Persian Gulf states, Jordan, Egypt, and Israel as members. The grid will be incorporated as a US company and will own all of the reactors.
* The other facet will be a super-consortium that will build and maintain the reactors, be responsible for their security, ensure a regular supply of nuclear fuel for the reactors, and be responsible for organized removal of the nuclear waste. The participants in the super-consortium will be government companies and public or private industrial corporations from the US, France, the UK, and Israel.
* All of the member countries will sign nuclear non-proliferation agreements.
* The Persian Gulf states will finance construction of the reactors in return for a defense umbrella against Iran provided by the consortium, guaranteed by the major powers during the life of the reactors - 60-80 years.
* No reactor will be built on Israeli territory, but Israel will receive the entire power production of two of the reactors built in Egypt just for its consent, without spending a dollar on their construction. The cost to Israel of the electricity from these reactors will be "negligible."
* The super-consortium will place the security of all the reactors, including those in the Persian Gulf, in the hands of Israel and will finance the security project, which will cost billions of dollars, from the treasuries of the Persian Gulf states.
* One section of the project will be the launching of 10 espionage satellites to be manufactured and operated by IAI. The satellites will monitor all of the reactors and transfer the information to control centers. Production of the satellites in cooperation with IAI subsidiary Elta Systems will inject over $10 billion into IAI. Billions more will flow to Rafael Advanced Defense Systems Ltd. from the placement of Iron Dome batteries around each of the reactors. Israeli input for cyber security of all of the reactors is also planned.
* Private Israeli companies will provide security services for all of the reactors in the Arab countries.
I asked the entrepreneurs whether the vision of Israeli forces guarding reactors in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and of the Persian Gulf states agreeing to finance a project that will yield so many benefits for Israel,was not a fantasy, and whether reliance on the Persian Gulf states was not the Achilles heel of this entire ambitious project.
Cochran sounded surprised by the question. "Our strategy is to create new relations between countries in the Middle East," he answered. "We have constructed the enterprise so that each of the member countries in it benefits. In exchange for their investment in the reactors, the Persian Gulf states will not only receive revenue from the sale of power produced by the reactors, but can also use more of their oil production for export instead of internal consumption. Beyond dollars and cents, however, the biggest benefit for the Persian Gulf countries is a defense package from the US, the UK, France, and Russia. Our venture will remove the threat of the ayatollahs of Iran. Our message to these countries is that we (the West and Russia) will guarantee their existence, as the US has guaranteed the existence of Israel."
"Above all, the reactors will completely change the socioeconomic picture in the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Jordan," Cochran adds. "They will help these countries overcome their greatest problem: unemployment. This is a ticking bomb liable to cause regional chaos. Our reactors will make it possible to defuse this bomb: they will facilitate the initiation of giant projects: seawater desalination, land reclamation, and massive industrialization."
Copson says, "The Persian Gulf states are not a problem. For them, the most important thing is a security umbrella that will protect them from the ayatollahs. Our venture guarantees this for them. The Persian Gulf states now realize that their situation has become worse because of the Iranian threat and the change in the oil markets. They can therefore now accept the terms demanded by the super-consortium in order to guarantee their security and the revenue from sales of their oil."
Not everyone in Israel believes in the project. Former Israel Atomic Energy Commission director general and Administration for the Development of Weapons and Technological Infrastructure head Brig. Gen. (res.) Uzi Eilam makes a devastating critique of ACU's venture and says that its basic assumptions are untrue.
He challenges ACU's assumption that independent initiatives for building nuclear reactors to produce electricity by countries around the world, especially in the Middle East, constitute a strategic security threat. "I don't accept this assumption," he says, asserting, "There is no chance that the accumulation of waste from nuclear fuel is liable to pose an existential threat to Israel. If the entrepreneurs are trying to scare the public, they should be ashamed of themselves. I think this is nonsense." He adds that he is aware of only a very small number of cases in which radioactive materials were found in the hands of terrorists, "and in any case, this is not a strategic threat."
Eilam also says, "Satellite supervision of activity at nuclear power plants? What foolishness. Satellites cannot see from space what is happening in the reactor itself. A satellite can expose suspicious construction, but turning satellite inspection into a concept that will save the world is an error that calls into question the reliability of the people proposing it." It is also unclear to him how all the countries in the region will be brought into a partnership in the venture and how they will approve the Israeli security apparatus for securing the reactors in accordance with ACU's plan.
"The entrepreneurs hope that Netanyahu will be persuaded and persuade his friend, Trump, to support the venture," Eilam says, "but what will Netanyahu present that can persuade Trump? I think this is wishful thinking."
Ben Gurion University of the Negev Reactor Physics research group head Dr. Erez Gilad, however, says, "The basic idea of the initiative has many advantages for all of the partner countries, certainly in comparison with a situation in which every country in the Middle East develops its own nuclear program… The most significant advantage of the program is that it makes sure that sensitive nuclear technologies will not leak to countries in the region and provides close supervision of the nuclear fuel."
Gilad notes, however, that the plan also gives rise to some weighty questions. "For example, who will be the regulator supervising safe operation of the reactors, including an examination of the fitness of the personnel and the operating rules in peacetime and in an emergency? A professional, reliable, and independent regulator is a key element in any civilian nuclear program. How will he be appointed and how will his authority be defined?"
Gilad says that another possible risk is the great complexity of supervising the nuclear fuel and preventing the leaking of technologies. Despite the great experience and impressive capabilities that have been acquired, a determined country will always look for (and usually find) ways of getting around the supervisory mechanism.
In the event of a military coup or government instability, there is a physical risk to the integrity of the reactors. Gilad emphasizes that physical damage to the nuclear fuel will mean an extremely grave nuclear malfunction whose consequences are liable to be similar to those following the malfunction at Fukushima in Japan in 2011. In addition, when the lifetime of a reactor is 60 years, it should be taken into account that the US and other partners are also liable to withdraw from this plan, as the US withdrew from the nuclear agreement with Iran.
Former Israel Atomic Energy Commission director general Gideon Frank focuses on what seems to him to be an important aspect of the project: the structural separation between the countries in which the reactors will be built and the nuclear process taking place in their territory. In other words, these countries will only consume the electricity; they will have no part in the nuclear process of producing it, even though the process will be taking place on their territory.
"The big advantage is that there is no need to fear selling nuclear reactors to these countries or others on condition that the sellers - the builders of the reactor - are also the ones who will supply the nuclear fuel and remove the nuclear waste from the territory of these countries," Franks says. He adds that the message for countries that are potential customers is that we will build reactors and you will buy electricity from us. Economically speaking, this is very worthwhile for countries like those in the Persian Gulf - countries with no professional infrastructure for building and operating such reactors.
The Prime Minister's Office refused to approve interviews with scientists currently serving on the Atomic Energy Commission who agreed to be interviewed. Defense industry sources aware of ACU's venture declined to comment.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on June 26, 2018
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