Trump's embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, offered an attractive possibility. And when Flynn, who had connections to the Russians, became the candidate's national security adviser, the ACU team, led by British-American dealmaker Alex Copson, suddenly seemed to have an inside man. Last year, Copson was touting such connections when he tried to buy an unfinished nuclear plant in Alabama in concert with the Russians, telling a Huntsville reporter that "Alabama's two senators"—both Republicans, and one, Jeff Sessions, then a top Trump campaign adviser—"can help the next administration move this project forward." Copson's bid for the plant failed.
When reports surfaced that the FBI was investigating possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, however, some of Copson's partners and advisers decided it was time to walk away. "When Copson decided he was going to saddle up with the Trump team, that was the last straw for me," the insider says. "I said it's time to regroup."
The Saudis hadn't shown much interest anyway, the insider says. "Copson was promising the advisers lots of money if the Saudis put up money," but it failed to materialize. "And so there's nothing that anyone was going to gain unless the project was a success," he tells Newsweek.
Hewitt and his associates also split from ACU to pursue their own path toward a nuclear-powered Middle East, one that would swap in China for Russia as a nuclear partner, two sources close to the project say. (Hewitt declined to discuss plans for IP3, telling Newsweek he was "working hard to create our public persona right now.")
But the highly regarded Cochran stayed with ACU. A longtime senior scientist and onetime president at the Natural Resources Defense Council, he was the author of countless studies and articles over the decades and had initiated with Moscow the U.S.-Soviet nuclear test ban verification project in 1986. He "has extraordinary chutzpah," a writer for Scientific American observed in 1998. "He is willing to take on what most people wouldn't bother with because they assume it's hopeless."
Or nuts. In 2001, a writer for the left-wing In These Times weekly got hold of a draft proposal for a 1990s-era project that Cochran was involved in, the Nuclear Proliferation Trust, which envisioned taking control of spent fuel from reactors around the world and shipping it to Russia "on large ships mounted with an arsenal of weapons designed to ward off nuclear pirates," wrote Jeffrey St. Clair. "The big question is what happens to the waste after it arrives in Russia." Would NPT guards be authorized to fire on rogue Russian soldiers or Chechen rebels? And what would stop corrupt Russians from selling weapons-grade uranium to anyone who could pony up the cash?
Similar concerns are all the more reason to partner with the Russians today in an ironclad security arrangement, Hewitt says. "We're always going to be engaged in the security of the Middle East," he told a May gathering at the Nuclear Energy Institute. "It is in our best interests to ensure that nuclear power is introduced with all of the safety [standards of the U.S.]."
Cochran urges critics not to lose focus on the big picture, which he alternately likens to launching the U.S. Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II, and the Tennessee Valley Authority, which tamed rivers and brought electricity and industrial development to the American South in the 1930s. "It would provide energy and jobs and so forth for countries like Egypt and others in the region," he says, "so that these young men have got something more useful to do than go out and shoot each other."
For a project fraught with such diplomatic and logistical minefields, however, Copson is an odd choice to lead ACU into the Middle East. "A sometime bass player with the British rock band Iron Butterfly," according to Time, Copson once famously "described the natives of the Marshall Islands as 'fat, lazy fucks' when they nixed one of his nuke dump schemes" in the Central Pacific Ocean, the muckraking journalist Greg Palast wrote in 2001. (The islands are now disappearing under rising seas.)
Copson did not respond to several calls and emails asking for comment. But it's not likely the Trump team, many of whom are under close scrutiny for their undisclosed Russian contacts, will be any help to Copson now. And the Saudis aren't "taking the kind of steps that would be required to really get serious about setting up a civil nuclear-energy infrastructure," says Tristan Volpe, a fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.
Others suspect the Saudis are up to something more nefarious because of the U.S.-led nuclear deal with Iran. The Saudis "have big ambitions for nuclear," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C. "The issue is whether they cross over into any processing or enrichment" with secret partners like Pakistan or China, he says.
Flynn once expressed deep worries about a Saudi-Iranian nuclear arms race. In a January 2016 interview with Al-Jazeera, he sounded like Cochran, the elder statesman of the nonproliferation movement. "An entirely new economy is what this region needs," he said, especially for the millions of unemployed young men living under corrupt autocracies and tempted by extremism. "You've got to give them something else to do. If you don't, they're going to turn on their own governments."
But that was before he hitched up with Trump, who has embraced the Saudi monarchy and ratcheted up his rhetoric against Iran. Talk of a grand scheme to create jobs in the Middle East, meanwhile, has evaporated, with the Russia scandal enveloping not only Flynn but Trump's entire presidency.
Watch: Flynn misled investigators