As Saudi Arabia builds a civilian nuclear power program, its atomic energy authority has quietly given millions of dollars to a U.S. law firm to help aid its development.

The King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE) already has paid Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman at least $2.8 million for a range of legal services, and given that the duration of the contract could well be “indefinite,” as one Pillsbury lawyer said, millions more could be heading the firm’s way. In its contract and related documents, Pillsbury outlines a seemingly unique legal effort, including the “ongoing training programs on many aspects of the law (including nuclear topics) under the auspices of ‘Pillsbury University.’ ”

According to a July 13, 2011, letter from Pillsbury partner Stephen Huttler to a K.A.CARE official, which is among the Foreign Agents Registration Act documents the firm filed with the U.S. Justice Department, one of the firm’s goals is to create a “knowledge transfer platform” that would “produce over the next several years Saudi nationals who can assume the position of General Counsel for the Saudi nuclear program.”

At least six Pillsbury lawyers and a firm consultant are connected to the July 2011 contract, which also tasks the firm with advising the atomic energy authority on its compliance with international rules and regulations and assisting the body with agreements. The firm’s team includes Huttler, partners Charles Peterson, David Lewis, John O’Neill Jr. and James Glasgow, as well as senior associate William Fork and consultant Daniel Joyner, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law who is an expert in, among other things, civilian nuclear energy law.

“We are pleased to have this opportunity to be of service and look forward to a long, close and productive relationship,” Huttler wrote in Pillsbury’s offer letter to the nuclear power authority, which is among the documents filed with the DOJ.

But the exact details of their activities during the past several months are unclear — Pillsbury and the Saudis aren’t talking. After saying the Saudi nuclear power authority could remain as a Pillsbury client indefinitely, Huttler, who signed the contract with the body, declined to comment. He also declined to comment on behalf of the firm and the attorneys working on the account. K.A.CARE spokesman Saleh Al Shubaili didn’t respond to a list of questions about the program and its relationship with Pillsbury.

BILATERAL AGREEMENTS

The firm’s “services shall include advising K.A.CARE regarding bilateral agreements and other areas of cooperation with the United States government concerning development of a peaceful nuclear power program, compliance with international nonproliferation and safeguards agreements and treaties in cooperation with the United States, development of regulations and law, policies to achieve the highest standards of safety and security, and negotiation of commercial contracts with vendors in connection with K.A.CARE’s development of such programs,” one of the DOJ records says.

In the DOJ paperwork, the firm says it’s looking to train over the next 10 years a group of Saudi lawyers to enable them to give high-quality legal advice to leaders of the nuclear power program. Pillsbury anticipates that the Saudi atomic energy authority will find candidates for the group and send them to law school in the United States and England. The firm then plans to provide the candidates with internships, clerkships and counseling. It also plans to set up “Pillsbury University” for personnel of the nuclear-power program, to give legal instruction to a special group of Saudi lawyers and teach nuclear law courses at Saudi colleges.

Huttler, who oversees Pillsbury’s international activities and its Middle Eastern practice from Washington, is the firm’s candidate to supervise the training programs. The other Pillsbury lawyers and the firm consultant mentioned in DOJ documents are divided among a core team and a support group, which will provide assistance when needed.

The core group includes Peterson, Lewis and Fork, who are in the firm’s energy group and have experience with nuclear-power issues. Peterson, the only Pillsbury lawyer to officially notify DOJ that he is working for the Saudi atomic energy authority, maintains offices in Washington; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Lewis, the head of the firm’s energy group, and Fork are based in Washington. But the offer letter notes that the lawyers are expected to spend “a considerable portion of the year in Riyadh.”

Glasgow, O’Neill and Joyner are on the support team and are specialists in nuclear energy. O’Neill, head of the firm’s regulatory department, is based in Washington, while Glasgow maintains offices in D.C. and Abu Dhabi. Joyner, the Alabama law professor, has class titles that include “Public International Law,” “The Law of War” and “WMD Law & Policy,” focusing on weapons of mass destruction, according to his law school biography.

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY

The oil-rich country’s absolute monarch, King Abdullah, established K.A.CARE in April 2010 in an effort “to meet Saudi Arabia’s future electricity demand, projected to nearly triple in the next 20 years, while maintaining the highest industry standards for safety, security and transparency,” according to the authority’s Web site, which displays “A New Era of Sustainable Energy” in large, bold letters set against a blue sky background.

Saudi Arabia’s nuclear program has raised concerns among members of Con­gress and nonproliferation watchdogs, in part because of repeated statements from Saudi officials that the kingdom won’t hesitate to develop nuclear weapons if neighboring Iran builds them first.

Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former Saudi intelligence head and ambassador to the United States, said at a June 2011 NATO meeting that his country would “pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences” if Iran gets an atomic bomb, The Guardian of London reported.

“We cannot live in a situation where Iran has nuclear weapons and we don’t. It’s as simple as that,” a senior official in Riyadh told the newspaper, clarifying Al-Faisal’s remarks. “If Iran develops a nuclear weapon, that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.”

Abdullah also hinted at the possibility of arming his country with atomic weapons if Iran gets them. The king told the United States in 2008 that if Iran built nuclear bombs “everyone in the region would do the same, including Saudi Arabia,” according to diplomatic cables obtained by WikiLeaks and published by The Guardian.

The Saudi comments raise “a great deal of concern” about the kingdom’s intentions, said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. Saudi Arabia, a party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, hasn’t signed a 1997 voluntary protocol that is intended to bolster International Atomic Energy Agency efforts to find nuclear weapons programs, he noted.

“From a nonproliferation perspective, a Saudi nuclear program is an important one to watch,” he said.

The DOJ documents do not suggest that Pillsbury is involved with the development of a nuclear weapons program. The records contain several references to a “peaceful” atomic energy program and stress that Saudi Arabia is committed to working with the United States and other countries.

The Saudi authority also isn’t the only foreign client that has hired Pillsbury to assist it with its civilian nuclear power program. The firm is helping South Korea negotiate with the United States a new cooperation agreement concerning peaceful atomic energy, according to DOJ records.

Winston & Strawn partner Tyson Smith, chairman of the American Bar Association’s Special Committee on Nuclear Power, said K.A.CARE’s decision to hire a U.S. law firm doesn’t raise any red flags. Smith said it makes sense that Saudi Arabia’s atomic energy authority would seek the services of a law firm in the United States, which he called “one of the gold standards” for civilian nuclear power.

“If [Pillsbury is] working on this, this is a good opportunity for them,” Smith said.

AN UNSTABLE REGION

The U.S. government also has shown a commitment to a peaceful nuclear program in Saudi Arabia, a U.S. ally in fighting terrorism. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal in 2008 signed a tentative agreement that said the United States would help the kingdom develop nonmilitary nuclear technology.

The United States last year reportedly began discussions on a formal nuclear cooperation agreement, which must be presented to Congress. But the agreement could face an uphill battle on Capitol Hill. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said last year that she was “astonished” that the United States would have nuclear cooperation negotiations with “an unstable country in an unstable region.” Saudi Arabia was one of nine countries to make a “worst of the worst” list human rights group Freedom House published this year in its annual report on political rights and civil liberties around the world.

The congresswoman last year introduced legislation that would require a country that seeks U.S. nuclear cooperation to submit a legally binding document that says it won’t develop an atomic weapon, among other requirements. The bill received unanimous approval from the House Foreign Affairs Committee on April 14, 2011.

“By continuing to support the spread of nuclear programs to unstable and authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East, we are not only undermining our efforts to counter Iran’s nuclear pursuit, but we may be helping to create a mortal threat to the security of the U.S., to Israel, and to all of our allies in the region,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement.

But Pillsbury partner Glasgow has publicly expressed his opposition to the bill. He said at a nuclear industry symposium last year that the legislation could have “a massive adverse impact on [the] American nuclear industry and U.S. jobs,” according to Global Security Newswire.

In its most recent DOJ report on its activities for the Saudi atomic energy authority, Pillsbury says it didn’t lobby the U.S. government for the authority from Aug. 1, 2011, to Jan. 31, 2012. But the firm has left the door open to do so.

Pillsbury’s activities “may include communications on behalf of the foreign principle with relevant Executive Branch and Legislative Branch offices regarding issues of interest to K.A.CARE,” one DOJ document says.

Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at aramonas@alm.com.