U.S. approves deal to share nuclear tech with Saudi Arabia

Matthew Daly
Associated Press
Prince Khalid bin Salman, Saudi deputy defense minister, arrives at the Department of State for a meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in Washington, Thursday, March 28, 2019. Salman is the son of Saudi Arabia's King Salman and brother of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Washington – The Trump administration has approved six applications for U.S. companies to sell nuclear power technology and assistance to Saudi Arabia, Energy Secretary Rick Perry told lawmakers Thursday.

Perry told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the Energy Department has approved 37 nuclear applications since January 2017, including nine in the Middle East. Besides the six to Saudi Arabia, two were approved for Jordan.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Perry if the applications were approved after Oct. 2, when Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist, lived in Virginia.

Perry said he did not know the specific date.

Lawmakers from both parties have expressed concerns that Saudi Arabia could develop nuclear weapons if the U.S. technology is transferred without proper safeguards.

The approvals, known as Part 810 authorizations, allow companies to do preliminary work on nuclear power ahead of any deal to build a nuclear plant. They do not allow equipment to be shipped. The authorizations were first reported by the Daily Beast before Perry confirmed them in public testimony.

Perry disputed media accounts describing the authorizations as secret, saying, “These U.S. companies that are going to be doing this work want to keep that proprietary information from being out in the public domain.”

“What we’re talking about here is something that goes on every day in this town and across the country,” he added.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., said during an earlier hearing that nuclear authorizations are usually made public. He accused the Trump administration of trying to conceal its negotiations with Saudi Arabia.

“It appears to me that this is an end run around the law in an effort to achieve a policy,” Sherman told Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday.

Pompeo said U.S. officials were “working to ensure that the nuclear power that (the Saudis) get is something we understand and doesn’t present that risk” of allowing them to make nuclear weapons.

Sherman said the authorizations should be made public or at least shared with the committee.

The announcement of the six approvals came as Republican and Democratic senators requested the Government Accountability Office review the Trump administration’s negotiations with Saudi Arabia.

Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J., asked the GAO to investigate reports that some negotiations have been conducted without oversight required under the federal Atomic Energy Act. The senators, who both serve on the Foreign Relations Committee, said it was unusual that the Energy Department apparently was leading the negotiations, rather than the State Department.

They said they were “troubled by the administration’s lack of consultations with Congress” and concerned that specific proposals presented by Energy officials may not have been fully vetted with other agencies.

The Trump administration had previously opened talks with Riyadh on what’s known as a “123 agreement.” The name comes from the section of the law that establishes the parameters for major nuclear cooperation between the United States and other countries. Without one, U.S. nuclear energy companies such as Westinghouse would lose out on business opportunities with the Saudis.

Rubio and a group of other Republican senators told President Donald Trump in October they would work to block an agreement from securing congressional approval if the administration pushes ahead. They expressed concern over Saudi Arabia’s refusal to consider a prohibition on its ability to pursue uranium enrichment and plutonium processing.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a member of the Armed Services Committee, told Perry it was “a bad idea to even consider passing on nuclear technology to the Saudi government,” given the possible role of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Khashoggi’s murder.

“The last thing we should be doing is giving the Saudi government the tools to produce nuclear weapons,” Warren said.