Secret Nuclear-Tech Deals Spark Calls for Transparency

Senators are pressing for more information on nuclear-power cooperation with Saudi Arabia.

Energy Secretary Rick Perry
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
April 2, 2019, 8 p.m.

Lawmakers are clamoring for more Trump administration disclosures on nuclear-cooperation deals globally, following revelations that the Energy Department signed off on technology transfers to Saudi Arabia.

The administration has approved nearly 40 of those private-sector deals, known as Part 810 authorizations, since President Trump took office, according to a recent statement from Energy Secretary Rick Perry.

And nonproliferation experts, along with senators from both parties, are arguing that the administration is running roughshod over the law by failing to update Congress on the approvals.

“We need to see all 37 of these that they’ve approved; we need to see the dates that they’ve approved, and the countries,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee. “These authorizations have been previously public, available for scrutiny by Congress and others, and the fact that these were held secret—there’s a lot of questions on that.”

Sen. Marco Rubio, the No. 2 Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and ranking member Bob Menendez sent a letter to Perry requesting details of the Saudi authorizations by April 10.

“While we are aware a Part 810 authorization can be utilized for certain types of limited nuclear cooperation, we are particularly concerned about this mechanism being used right now with Saudi Arabia,” the letter sent Tuesday states. “We therefore believe the United States should not be providing nuclear technology or information to them at this time.”

The 1954 Atomic Energy Act directs the Energy Department, along with the State Department and other agencies, to keep the foreign policy committees “fully and currently informed” of the secretary’s actions. And regulations for that law say the secretary must authorize technology transfers for the “development, production or use of a production reactor,” along with enrichment, heavy-water production, and a list of other activities.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pushed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week for details on the seven Saudi approvals, as well as the types of technology transfers the administration considers permissible under the statute.

“It appears that this is an end-run around the law to achieve a policy,” Sherman said.

Pompeo said he’d “look into it,” adding that the administration is aiming to comply with the law.

“The Saudis have indicated they want civil nuclear power,” Pompeo said. “We are working to ensure that the nuclear power that they get is something that we understand and doesn’t prevent a [weapons] risk.”

The U.S. continues to negotiate terms of a more formal nuclear pact with the Saudis, known as a 123 agreement. Despite a flurry of lobbying from Saudi Arabia in the past several years, those talks have fallen short.

Senators from both sides of the aisle are insisting on a “gold standard” version, which requires the Saudi government to give up its right to enrich uranium. The framework would be needed to send actual materials and equipment.

The Saudi government is so far rejecting that framework. Last year, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman said his government would “follow suit as soon as possible” if Iran develops a bomb.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman James Risch, a staunch Trump ally, told National Journal that’d he received a briefing on the Saudi transfers. “On all issues dealing with Saudi Arabia, there are discussions going on, and there hasn’t been a resolution reached on any of that stuff yet,” he said. “So, I’m not really ready to walk out and say, ‘This is what we should or shouldn’t do.’”

Saudi operatives brutally murdered Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and bin Salman critic, at a Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October. That incident, coupled with Saudi involvement in the ongoing war and humanitarian crisis in neighboring Yemen, has sparked fierce denunciations from U.S. lawmakers and, according to some accounts, has damaged bilateral relations.

Democrats have said they are particularly interested in seeing whether the nuclear agreements were signed after Oct. 2, the date of Khashoggi’s murder.

Officials at the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration told Sherman’s staff in December that DOE signed off on six Saudi approvals between November 2017 and December 2018, according to a letter obtained by National Journal that Sherman sent to Perry Tuesday.

That leaves one approval unaccounted for. A congressional source, who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of correspondence with the administration, said it could mean DOE approved one transfer after Khashoggi’s murder. But the source stressed that NNSA could also have been mistaken about the total or didn’t factor in a transfer that was approved between January and November 2017.

The letter requests the seven authorizations, as well as the reports that recipients are required to submit to DOE. “I fully understand and respect the need for U.S. companies to protect their proprietary information from competitors,” Sherman wrote. “At the same time, however, Congress must be given sufficient information to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibilities.”

Lawmakers are prioritizing the national security implications at play, but Part 810 authorizations are a real boon to U.S. industry, experts say. Nuclear power faces severe challenges domestically with the onset of cheap natural gas.

This type of authorization “could be to participate in a foreign nuclear-power-reactor bid, where the potential numbers if a U.S. company is selected could be billions of dollars,” said Matt Bowen, a top nuclear-energy official at DOE during the Obama administration.

“Overall, most of the global growth in nuclear energy projected over the next few decades is expected to take place outside the United States, so Part 810-specific authorizations are an important point of entry,” added Bowen, now a nuclear-policy fellow at the Clean Air Task Force.

But nonproliferation experts are warning that bin Salman’s comments on enrichment, along with recent Trump administration interest in pursuing nuclear-energy memorandums of understanding rather than 123 agreements, heighten the need for more transparency.

“The idea that Congress should not be shown this stuff is absurd. They should be trusted with this,” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and a former top nonproliferation official at the Defense Department. “You've got to assert this. It’s called constitutional checks and balances.”

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