Bechtel in Talks Over Potential Role in Saudi Nuclear Program

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  • Company also interested in futuristic planned city Neom
  • ‘This kind of work is right in our sweet spot’: Bechtel CEO

Bechtel Group Inc. is “very interested” in Saudi Arabia’s plans for a civilian nuclear program and is discussing potential roles for the company.

“This kind of work is right in our sweet spot,” Chief Executive Officer Brendan Bechtel said Tuesday in an interview in Riyadh, where the San Francisco-based engineering and construction company is celebrating its 75th anniversary of doing business in Saudi Arabia. “It’s going to be highly competitive and there are multiple solutions from different nation-states competing. The U.S. is going to need to be competitive to secure a role.”

Brendan Bechtel on April 10.

Photographer: Abdulrahman Abdullah/Bloomberg

Saudi Arabia is considering working with companies from several countries including the U.S. and South Korea as it seeks to build as many as 16 nuclear reactors in the kingdom. The Trump administration is in negotiations with the Saudi government, eager to extend a lifeline to Westinghouse Electric Co., Exelon Corp. and other U.S. companies hurt by a domestic downturn in nuclear power plant construction.

“It would be a pretty sad day for the U.S.-Saudi relationship if the team USA solution was not successful,” Bechtel said. “If it’s going to happen, we should be part of helping our allies develop a peaceful civilian nuclear program.”

Gold Standard

One potential wrinkle is whether any agreement with Saudi Arabia would include a so-called gold-standard clause, which permits power generation but would bar the enrichment and reprocessing of nuclear fuel and waste. The United Arab Emirates has made such a concession, but the Trump administration has considered potential deals with the kingdom that don’t include the prohibition. The issue was further muddied in March when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said the kingdom would develop a nuclear weapon if Iran did.

Bechtel is in discussions with the Saudi government’s King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, and the tender process is “moving pretty fast,” Bechtel said. Saudi officials have said they expect to sign contracts to build the first two reactors by the end of 2018.

Bechtel is currently working on a transit project in the Saudi capital and is helping support Mashroat, the government’s new National Project Management Organization. The company is also interested in Neom, a futuristic city that Prince Mohammed wants to build from scratch in the desert. Analysts have raised questions over its viability in a country where previous efforts to build new cities have struggled to get off the ground.

“We stand ready to help” with the $500 billion project, Bechtel said. “Nothing has ever been attempted at this level before.”

Bechtel is also in discussions with Saudi authorities about master plans for the mining industry, one of the industries the government wants to develop more under Prince Mohammed’s “Vision 2030” plan to diversify the economy away from oil.

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