Senators Demand Oversight for Nuclear Energy Talks With Saudi Arabia

Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman, left, meets with U.S. President Donald Trump and in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 20, 2017. (Balkis Press/Abaca Press/TNS)

Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation that would require the  executive branch to issue quarterly reports to Congress when it allows U.S. companies to engage in nuclear energy cooperation with foreign nations.

The move comes amid reports that the Trump administration gave several American companies permission to share nonpublic nuclear technology information with Saudi Arabia, igniting a new battle on Capitol Hill about the issue of congressional oversight on the matter.

“Congress recently learned through press accounts that the Department of Energy had secretly approved seven transfers of nuclear know-how from American companies to Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a statement. “Such transfers raise the risk of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and should not be made without Congressional oversight.”

The Energy Department later confirmed that it issued seven authorizations, which were first revealed during congressional hearings and in news reports. The department’s failure to inform Congress about these authorizations has led to speculations that the administration is looking to bypass lawmakers and facilitate secret discussions with the kingdom.

While those discussions are centered on the civilian use of nuclear technology, members of Congress are concerned that sharing nuclear technology information could put Saudi Arabia on the path toward nuclear weapon proliferation. These concerns are not completely unfounded.

In March 2018, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman stated in an interview that his country would develop nuclear weapons “if Iran developed a nuclear bomb.” The kingdom’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir echoed these comments a few months later.

Before a U.S. entity can engage in nuclear energy talks with a foreign nation it has to receive a so-called Part 810 authorization from the Energy Department.

The proposed amendment to the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 would require the Secretary of Energy and the Secretary of State to submit quarterly reports to Congress summarizing all Part 810 authorizations – reviewed, approved or rejected – during the previous 90 days.

It would also require the Energy Department to submit all Part 810 applications to the Secretary of State for review; retroactively turn over all Part 810 authorizations and applications dating back to 2015; and provide Congress with the authority to request that any Part 810 application be turned over to the lawmakers within 10 days.

“The transfer of nuclear technology overseas poses a major threat to our security as a nation and demands rigorous Congressional oversight,” Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., said. “This bipartisan legislation would ensure that the transfer of nuclear technology or expertise to foreign countries, like Saudi Arabia, cannot move forward without Congressional review.”

Satellite images earlier this month revealed that Saudi Arabia has nearly completed  its first nuclear reactor. The kingdom’s energy ministry said in a statement that facility’s purpose is to “engage in strictly peaceful scientific, research, educational and training activities in full compliance with international agreements.”  

Shortly after those images emerged, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo dismissed concerns over Saudi Arabia becoming nuclear power.

“We will not permit that to happen. We will not permit that to happen anywhere in the world,” Pompeo said in an interview with “CBS This Morning.” “The President understands the threat of proliferation. We will never write a $150 billion check to the Saudis and hand them over the capacity to threaten Israel and the United States with nuclear weapons, never.”

Saudi Arabia is reportedly in the midst of reviewing bids from international companies to build two nuclear reactors. CNBC reported that Westinghouse is leading the U.S. consortium competing for the contract against companies from China, France, Russia and South Korea.

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