Opposition to a deal for the US to provide nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia is growing after Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said the kingdom would develop a nuclear weapon if Iran did.
The potential for US companies to participate in the construction of as many as 16 nuclear reactors sought by the kingdom has been seen as a potential lifeline to Westinghouse Electric Co and others suffering from the flagging nuclear industry at home.
To further that effort, the Trump administration is said to be considering allowing the Saudis the right to enrich uranium, a break from the so-called "gold standard" included in the nuclear-sharing agreement with the United Arab Emirates, which allows power generation but prohibits the enrichment and reprocessing of uranium.
But that idea ran into a buzzsaw during a House hearing on Wednesday, with lawmakers from both parties saying prince’s admission that his country might seek to build nuclear weapons was cause to halt negotiations between the two nations. Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with Saudi officials earlier this month in London to begin talks on the deal.
"The idea of Saudi Arabia having a nuclear program with the ability to enrich is a major national security concern," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa. "Unfortunately from the little we do know from the administration it is looking at this deal in terms of economics and in terms of commerce and national security implications only register as a minor issue --if at all."
Congress can block a nuclear technology agreement by passing a joint resolution of disapproval, but the measure is subject to a presidential veto, a high bar to overcome. Ros-Lehtinen said she introduced legislation on Wednesday that would amend the process so that such agreements, known as 123 agreements, would require congressional approval if they fall short of the so-called "gold standard."
The notion of allowing Saudi Arabia to reprocess spent fuel into weapons-grade plutonium was already facing opposition from powerful figures in the Senate before the crown prince confirmed the kingdom’s concerns about Iran, its rival for influence in the Gulf and across the Middle East, during an interview with the CBS News program "60 Minutes" that was broadcast on Sunday.
“But without a doubt, if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” he said.
“Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has confirmed what many have long suspected - nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia is about more than just electrical power, it’s about geopolitical power,” Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who serves on the Foreign Relations Committee said. Others, such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, has said he has made the Trump administration aware of the bipartisan opposition that remains for any deal that allows enrichment.
Prince Mohammed, who just began a three-week visit to the US, has met with President Donald Trump and administration officials at the White House and plans to meet with energy executives to discuss the country’s plans to build two nuclear reactors by year’s end and 14 more over the next quarter century, according to the non-governmental US Energy Association.
But Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee that the number of reactors the kingdom actually may build is likely to be far less than proposed. Even some proponents, he added, say "they would be lucky if they bought even one."
"I would plead with all of the members here not to buy the prevailing narrative regarding the proposed nuclear deal with the Saudis," Sokolski testified. "The US has leverage, it should use it."
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