Trump administration authorized nuclear energy companies to share information with Saudi Arabia
By STEVEN MUFSON | The Washington Post | Published: March 28, 2019
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has kept secret seven authorizations it has issued since November 2017 allowing U.S. nuclear energy companies to share sensitive technological information with Saudi Arabia, even though the kingdom has not yet agreed to anti-proliferation terms required to construct a pair of U.S.-designed civilian nuclear power plants.
The Energy Department and State Department have not only kept the authorizations from the public but also refused to share information about them with congressional committees that have jurisdiction over nuclear proliferation and safety.
The authorizations, issued to six companies, cover "Part 810" information, named for a regulatory clause that allows U.S. companies to divulge some design information to compete for contracts with foreign buyers. The regulations for Part 810 technology-sharing provide a list of "generally authorized destinations." Saudi Arabia is not on the list.
Saudi Arabia has said it wants to build two nuclear power plants, and companies from Russia, China, South Korea, France and the United States have expressed interest in obtaining the contracts.
If a U.S. consortium is to build an actual reactor in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom would have to commit to what is known as a "123 agreement." Without that, Congress could vote to block. The kingdom so far has refused to give up its right to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel, both of which can be used to build nuclear weapons.
In a "60 Minutes" interview last year, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that "Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible."
In a December email obtained by The Washington Post, an Energy Department official conceded that "general practice is to place signed authorizations in the Department's [Freedom of Information Act] Public Reading Room." However, in justifying the handling of Part 810 information, the Energy Department has cited the companies' requests to protect proprietary information.
The Daily Beast first wrote about the 810 authorizations.
"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," Energy Secretary Rick Perry testified Wednesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I totally understand that."
Members of Congress are upset about the administration's stance and are trying to learn whether the United States has been sharing information with Saudi Arabia even after the October killing in Istanbul of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., questioned Perry about whether any of the Part 810 licenses for Saudi Arabia were issued after the killing of Khashoggi. Perry said he did not know. "I'll get back to you," he said.
Perry said that since 2017 there had been 65 applications from companies seeking to share information under Part 810 of the legislation authorizing the licenses. So far, Perry said, the department has issued 37 authorizations, including six to Saudi Arabia and two to Jordan. The Energy Department later issued a correction saying there were seven for Saudi Arabia.
"Frankly, I think the word 'secret' is what gets everybody spun up," Perry added. "What we're talking about here is something that goes on every day in this town and across this country."
Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., pressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a House Appropriations Committee hearing Wednesday to keep nuclear technology out of Saudi hands by sticking to the terms in the "gold standard" 123 agreement with the United Arab Emirates.
"It appears this is an end run around the law in an effort to achieve a policy," Sherman said. "Do we want to provide nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia before they enter into agreements for no reprocessing and no enrichment?"
Under current law, Congress has 90 days to act to block 123 agreements for new nuclear export deals. If Congress does not act, the agreement goes into effect.
In February, Sens. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Reps. Sherman and Ted Yoho, R-Fla., introduced legislation that would increase congressional oversight over any civil nuclear cooperation agreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia.
The Washington Post's Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.