End Secret Nuclear Transfers to Riyadh and Beyond
By Victor Gilinsky and Henry Sokolski
We now know, through investigative reporting, that the Energy Secretary Rick Perry authorized (pursuant to 10 CFR 810) unnamed US firms to transfer undisclosed nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. Not only did the Secretary hide this from the public, but he failed to inform Congress despite the legal requirement (see section 303 of the Atomic Energy Act) that he keep Congress “fully and currently informed” on his Department’s activities. He still has not disclosed the details to Congress. Nor, under Congressional questioning, did the Secretary of State Pompeo do so even though he too is required (under Section 123 e of the Atomic Energy Act) to keep Congress “fully and currently informed” of any nuclear cooperation “initiative” or “negotiations.” Congress must assert its authority now to curb the administration’s dangerous proclivity to supply Saudi Arabia with nuclear technology and eventually with nuclear plants, or risk being sidelined altogether.
We say Saudi Arabia, but we are really talking about the effective, absolute ruler, the ambitious Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, who demonstrated his ruthlessness and contempt for international rules in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Even more relevant is his statement that in certain circumstances he would get nuclear weapons “as soon as possible.” No other member of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has ever spoken that way, with the possible exception of North Korea. The Prince’s assertion was contingent, of course, on Iran getting nuclear weapons. But can we trust him to even wait that long?
That the administration is secretly authorizing nuclear technology transfers—which may include transfer of physical or electronic documents—to Riyadh should arouse extreme suspicion. The Energy Secretary insists that the secrecy is to protect proprietary information. The regulation on such transfers permits protection of all “clearly marked” proprietary information, but the names of the applicants and the general subject of the technology are surely not marked as propriety. There is something fishy here.
The reason for an explicit Energy Department authorization is that Saudi Arabia is not one of the countries with whom such transfers are generally authorized, and, thus, any transfer to it requires closer scrutiny. Here the administration is trying to do the opposite, to slip it through the side door. The 810 regulation requires recipients to supply a progress report within 30 days of the start of the authorized activity. Congress should find out whether such reports have been filed and insist on seeing them.
To assuage criticism, the Department of Energy has stressed that a Part 810 authorizations do not cover physical exports of materials and equipment. Indeed, for that, it is necessary that there be a 123 agreement for nuclear cooperation, so-called because it is covered in Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act.
The administration has been discussing such an agreement with the Saudis. It’s unclear what is holding it up. Possibly it is the administration’s effort to maximize the US component of the Saudi nuclear business, a hard sell since Westinghouse isn’t even an American-owned company anymore and recently went belly-up.
The main agreement-related concern in Congress is Saudi insistence on retaining the right to enrich uranium, supposedly to supply low enriched uranium fuel for the nuclear power reactors they want to buy. But the same enrichment plant producing low enriched uranium could easily be reconfigured to produce high enriched uranium for weapons. Even a small centrifuge enrichment plant, one that could produce low enriched fuel for one power reactor, could produce enough high enriched uranium for dozens of bombs.
Again, to assuage concerns, a March 28 Energy Department statement emphasizes that any 123 agreement would undergo “rigorous Congressional review.” But to stop it or modify an agreement submitted by the White House, Congress would have pass a law within 90 days. This the president could veto, so as a practical matter it would take a two-thirds majority to change or block an agreement the administration submitted — probably a political impossibility. And while individual exports still require export licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, these have become a formality. In short, the time for Congress to deal with possible exports to the Saudis is now.
In truth, in view of the proliferation dangers, it makes no sense to authorize any nuclear export whatsoever to the Saudis. Their partisans have floated the possible sale of 16 nuclear units, with lots of nuclear business from other Arab states to follow. This is a mirage. It’s doubtful the Saudis — who hardly need nuclear power — will buy more than two units, just enough to justify getting enrichment technology, and most of that business would go elsewhere.
The retort is that if we are not involved, Russia and China will get the work and gain influence over the Middle East. This gets things backwards: Our efforts would best be directed at convincing the Russians and Chinese to stay out rather than racing to give the Saudi Prince a leg up on a bomb. Moreover, pandering to the Kingdom’s nuclear aspirations smacks of weakness.
While the Saudi nuclear export case is perhaps the most egregious one, the same problems, albeit to a lesser degree, apply to other agreements for nuclear cooperation. If Congress wants to play a real part in the process, it needs to insist that Energy and State follow the law and keep Congress “fully and currently informed.” Nuclear cooperation agreements functionally have become mutual security pacts; they should require explicit Congressional approval.