In-Depth: Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) reintroduced this bill from the 115th Congress to increase Congressional oversight over any civil nuclear cooperation — also known as a 123 agreement — between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in response to the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi:
“As I’ve said before, a government that cannot be trusted with a bone saw, should not be trusted with a nuclear weapon. This bill empowers Congress to block any nuclear cooperation agreement that allows Saudi Arabia to acquire the technologies necessary to build a nuclear bomb.”
Rep. Sherman draws a distinction between selling nuclear weapons, versus conventional weapons, to the Saudis: “It is one thing to sell them planes, but another to sell them nukes, or the capacity to build them.” During a committee hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March 2019, Rep. Sherman added:
“What I’ve seen in this administration recently, and it’s just come out, is an effort to evade Congress and, to some extent, evade [the State Dept]. And provide substantial nuclear technology and aid to Saudi Arabia, while Saudi Arabia refuses to abide by any of the controls we would like to see regarding reprocessing (and) enrichment.”
In the same committee hearing, Rep. Sherman pointed out that the U.S. “treated Iran like an enemy” for engaging in activities that could be used to build a nuclear weapon and asked:
“If Saudi Arabia is hell-bent on developing a nuclear program that is uncontrolled and designed to make them a nuclear state or a possible nuclear state, will we treat them as an enemy?”
Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), the Senate sponsor of this bill, adds:
“Saudi Crown Prince Mohamad bin Salman is more focused on nuclear energy in the Kingdom for geopolitical power than for electrical power. Saudi Arabia’s turn towards brutal authoritarianism, along with its stated desire to pursue nuclear weapons, makes it critical for the United States to demand the highest nonproliferation standards in any 123 agreement it negotiates with the country, and for Congress to have final say before approval. I thank Senator Rubio, and Reps. Sherman and Yoho for their leadership on this important legislation that will help thwart a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.”
Sen. Marco Rubio adds that the Saudi government’s agreement to adhere to the “gold standard” and the IAEA’s Additional Protocol nuclear inspections are paramount:
“Until the Saudi government agrees to adhere to the ‘Gold Standard’ for responsible nuclear behavior, allows IAEA’s Additional Protocol nuclear inspections, and also proves they are willing to be a responsible partner that respects the basic human rights of their citizens, the United States should suspend all talks related to a civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia. This important bill will ensure Congress has oversight over and the right to affirmatively approve any civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, and also continues to press the Saudis for full accountability in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Christopher Ford, assistant secretary of State for international security and nonproliferation, has said that the State Dept. believes some nuclear cooperation can occur under a memorandum of understanding, which doesn't require congressional approval, rather than a formal 123 agreement.
The Saudi energy ministry claims that its atomic energy program is strictly pursuing civil applications:
“The Saudi government has repeatedly confirmed that every component of the Saudi atomic energy program is strictly for civil and peaceful uses. The Saudi government has decided to move with this project not only to diversify energy sources but also to contribute to our economy. Saudi Arabia has repeatedly called for a Middle East free from all forms of nuclear weapons.”
In congressional committee testimony in March 2019, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Dept. is working to ensure that Saudi nuclear power acquisitions don’t carry the risk of weaponization:
“We are working to ensure that the nuclear power that they get is something we understand and doesn’t present that risk [of helping Saudi Arabia develop a nuclear weapon]. That’s the mission statement.”
However, at the same time, Saudi Arabia has long shown interest in acquiring, or helping its allies acquire, the building blocks of a program that could make nuclear weapons to protect it from its neighbors. For example, the Saudi government provided the financing for Pakistan to build its nuclear arms, which the Pakistani program’s creators called the first “Sunni bomb.”
Additionally, in a 2018 “60 Minutes” interview, Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that Saudi Arabia would seek to develop a bomb if Iran developed one, saying, “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.”
This bill has nine bipartisan House cosponsors, including eight Democrats and one Republican. A Senate companion bill, sponsored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and cosponsored by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), has also been introduced in the current Congressional session.
Last Congress, Rep. Sherman and Sen. Markey introduced versions of this bill in their respective chambers as the “No Nuclear Weapons for Saudi Arabia Act of 2018.” Sen. Markey’s Senate bill had one cosponsor, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL). Rep. Sherman’s House bill had 12 bipartisan cosponsors, including nine Democrats and three Republicans. Neither bill received a committee vote.
Of Note: 123 agreements are required for U.S. companies to be allowed to export nuclear reactors, major reactor components, and reactor fuel. Congress is entitled to review and potentially block these types of agreements. However, less significant types of nuclear technology can be sold abroad with only Dept. of Energy (DOE) licenses, known as Part 810 agreements or Part 810 authorizations.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have criticized the Trump administration’s approach to Saudi nuclear sales, saying the administration isn’t doing enough to ensure nuclear technology going to the Saudis won’t be used to create nuclear weapons and claiming that there’s a “lower level of nuclear exchanges” happening outside of their own and the public’s awareness through Part 810 authorizations. While it’s the DOE’s
On February 19, 2019, the House Oversight Committee released a report detailing White House efforts to rush the sale of nuclear power reactors to Saudi Arabia while underplaying the legal obligations of the Atomic Energy Act, which requires the negotiation of a bilateral agreement to ensure nuclear technology isn’t misused. In the report, the committee describes White House national security staff’s concerns that the administration engaged in “unethical and potentially illegal” actions in 2017 to see through a nuclear reactor sale to Saudi Arabia.
In March 2019, the DOE refused to disclose the companies that have received authorizations to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia under Section 810 agreements, even though the department published such agreements during the Obama administration. In an email to Congress, an Energy Dept. official noted that the companies in question had requested that the administration not publicly release the documentation:
“We do inform a company that they have the right to request their authorization be withheld from public release if the nature of the authorization could cause them competitive harm or potentially provide insight into their proprietary information. This is not unexpected given that [Saudi Arabia] is a new market that US companies are exploring.”
In response to the 810 authorizations, Rep. Sherman accused the Trump administration of using the 810 authorizations as an “end run around the law in an effort to achieve a policy … to provide nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia before they enter into agreements for no reprocessing and no enrichment.”
Trump administration officials argue that if the U.S. doesn’t sell nuclear equipment to Saudi Arabia, someone else will — perhaps Russia, China, or North Korea.
Summary by Lorelei Yang
(Photo Credit: Bjoern Schwarz via Flickr / Creative Commons)