Report Blows Whistle on Saudi Nuclear Talks

Trump administration efforts to promote the sale of civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia drew renewed congressional scrutiny in February. The U.S. House Oversight Committee released a Feb. 19 report describing White House efforts to rush the sale of nuclear power reactors while underplaying the legal obligations of the Atomic Energy Act, which requires the negotiation of a bilateral agreement to ensure nuclear technology is not misused.

Hashim Yamani, president of the King Abdullah City of Atomic and Renewable Energy, arrives for a 2016 White House visit. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images)The report describes the concerns of White House national security staff that the administration undertook “unethical and potentially illegal” actions in 2017 to see through a sale of nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia. The report points particularly to former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former National Security Council staff director Derek Harvey, among several other named former officials or associates of President Donald Trump, including his senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to adopt the “gold standard” of these agreements, known as 123 agreements for the section of the law that applies to them, has worried nuclear nonproliferation experts. Nations adopting that standard, such as the United Arab Emirates in 2009 and Taiwan in 2013, agree to forgo enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium and to adopt an additional protocol to their safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to confirm the peaceful nature of their nuclear activities. Concerns about Saudi Arabia grew after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year that Saudi Arabia would develop nuclear weapons if Iran did and after the October 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. (See ACT, December 2018.)

Meanwhile, members of Congress have continued to scrutinize the 123 agreement negotiations by introducing legislation that would increase congressional oversight. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs nonproliferation subcommittee, has offered bills to give Congress a more active role in approving 123 agreements. A Feb. 12 bipartisan resolution by Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) says that any agreement with Saudi Arabia should adhere to the gold standard.—SHERVIN TAHERAN