Six secret authorizations have been approved by Energy Secretary Rick Perry for U.S. companies to sell nuclear energy technology and support to Saudi Arabia.
Reuters, which has seen a copy of a document explaining the authorizations, reported Wednesday night that the Trump administration is stealthily pursuing “a wider deal” on sharing American nuclear technology with the Gulf Arab nation, in a bid to beat companies in Russia, China, and South Korea for the contract.
The “Part 810” authorizations approved by Perry allow U.S. companies to do the groundwork ahead of the deal, even though Saudi Arabia has yet to sign any kind of agreement that would prohibit it from using enriched materials to build weapons.
The document, produced by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), indicates that the approvals remain secret at the behest of the companies. These authorizations are not in the FOIA Public Reading Room, ostensibly because they included some proprietary information.
“There are now indications that they weren’t approaching this entire issue the right way…”
But prior Part 810s issued for Saudi Arabia have not been given the same secret treatment, making them available to the public.
All of this is unfolding as the House Oversight and Reform Committee looks into investigating the Trump administration’s engagement with Saudi Arabia on its plans to build a nuclear reactor. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office, has agreed to start investigating the Trump administration’s nuclear negotiations with Saudi Arabia. The probe is being done at the request of Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
Lawmakers have an increasingly dim view of Saudi Arabia, in large part due to its role in the death of dissident Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. (It is unclear whether the authorizations were made after Khashoggi’s killing, according to Reuters). While the kingdom continues to spend its way into an ever-closer relationship with the Trump administration, Congress has also expressed concerns over Saudi’s increasingly deadly role in Yemen’s civil war.
The Saudis want to build nuclear reactors without signing on to a 123 Agreement, as well as added protections — safeguards to ensure that materials from the power reactors would not be diverted into a weapons program. Signing the 123 Agreement is the bare minimum, under U.S. law, for a U.S. company to be able to sell or transfer nuclear technology to a foreign government or company.
Westinghouse Electric Co. is one of several companies that has bid to build the AP1000 reactors in Saudi Arabia. The company was purchased in January 2018 by Brookfield Business Partners, which bailed Jared Kushner’s family out of a bad real estate deal in August of that year.
The 123 Agreement and added protocols are supposed to be based in nonproliferation policy rather than commercial interest. The Trump administration is all about commercial interest, and the openly transactional nature of the Trump White House, coupled with an extra-close relationship with Saudi Arabia, are in part what prompted the House Oversight report in February.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman caused a stir when he told CBS last year that his country would pursue nuclear weapons if they thought Iran was doing the same. (Iran’s energy program has been subject to regular inspections. It does not have a nuclear weapons program.)
While it’s “absolutely normal” for the DOE to use the Part 810s without a 123 Agreement in place, said Richard Nephew, former director for Iran on the National Security Council, there’s an “air of inappropriateness that is hovering around the Administration’s dealings with Saudi on nuclear grounds.”
“And, I have to say, as someone who believes we ought to negotiate a 123 with Saudi and that we ought to have a civil nuclear relationship with them, this makes me really frustrated, as they’re tainting something that ought to be a commonly held strategic interest,” he added.
Nephew also said these authorizations make him feel “uneasy,” “nervous,” and “suspicious” because “there are now indications that they [the administration] weren’t approaching this entire issue the right way … it suggests an attempt to end run the 123 Agreement.”
Thomas Countryman, former assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, said that it’s unlikely that the Part 810s would allow for “any sensitive information that could potentially be useful if Saudi Arabia later chose to pursue nuclear weapons.”
But, he added, answering questions via email, that “It does seems clear that the Administration has not acted consistently with either the spirit or the letter of the Atomic Energy Act, in failing to notify the Congress of the 810 approvals, and failing to brief Congress on the course of the 123 negotiations with Saudi Arabia.”
The unusual level of secrecy surrounding these approvals, said Countryman, “will only add to Congress’ suspicion of the intentions of both the Administration and of Saudi Arabia.” Any deal with the Saudis, he said, should be achieved “through transparency and not through secrecy.”
Perry an “unwise” choice
The secret authorizations are not the only things that are somewhat unorthodox about the negotiations. One question worth asking is, why is Rick Perry negotiating this deal?
Signing a 123 Agreement falls under the auspices of the State Department (though other agencies, including the DoE, are involved).
Perry has been promoting the Westinghouse bid while also making a number of trips to Saudi Arabia in order to get the Gulf Arab Kingdom to sign on to 123 and added protections.
ThinkProgress reached out to the Department of Energy, but did not receive a response. ThinkProgress also repeatedly reached out to the State Department, asking for clarification on why Perry has taken a central role in the talks. The agency was not much more forthcoming.
An official told ThinkProgress that “Pursuant to Section 123 of the Atomic Energy Act, civil nuclear cooperation agreements (123 agreements) are negotiated by the Secretary of State, with the technical assistance and concurrence of the Secretary of Energy and in consultation with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”
That was followed by, “We cannot comment further on specifics regarding any structure or content of the negotiations.”
One former State Department official who asked not to be named told ThinkProgress that “normally, State [Department] leads.”
“Other agencies can participate but, yes, I would deem as unusual negotiations being led by Rick Perry,” said the official, who was careful to add that there’s nothing stopping the Trump administration from doing things differently.
Still, the official had some misgivings: If what Perry — who lacks the experience to negotiate such a deal — goes beyond negotiating top lines and into an actual agreement, then that, said the source, “would be pretty unique.”
“I think that the core reason why this is unwise is that it elevates to a senior political level the import of the issue. That tends to push us towards deals because secretaries like to complete deals. They don’t like coming home to POTUS and saying, ‘Nah, couldn’t get there in the end.'”
The details in the House Oversight and Reform Committee report are also troubling to this former official.
“I mean, if they didn’t do a 123, it would just be illegal and even Perry’s lawyers would say no to that. I know his [nonproliferation] people and they’d want good protections in it too, but he just might be ignoring them.” said the former official.
‘We gotta get this done fast’
Another former State Department official, who also asked to remain anonymous and who is experienced in such negotiations, told ThinkProgress that every deal involved representatives from the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the National Security Council.
“What’s different this time is both the Saudis and the U.S. companies went to the White House and said, ‘We gotta get this done fast,’ and the White House looked to the Department of Energy to take the lead and to demonstrate its seriousness, involved Secretary Perry in the negotiations and has had him have a continuing role in meeting with the Saudis.”
This former official believes the State Department — specifically, the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation — is still figuring out the “nuts and bolts” of the agreement, but notes that it is unusual for the energy secretary to “have such a prominent role in talking about 123s.”
Insisting on strong non-proliferation standards, said the former official, were only added to Perry’s instructions at the behest of the State Department.
The former official said that there is no way to circumvent a 123 agreement, despite the work of “Flynn and a bunch of unethical idiots just trying to ram this through” during the first three months of the Trump administration.
“If it was just Jared Kushner and Rick Perry, they would have signed anything that the Saudis wanted,” said the former official, but the State Department has stepped in to make sure that doesn’t happen.
The source hopes Perry isn’t negotiating a 123 (leaving that up the State Department) and is, instead, merely talking to the Saudis about the benefits of buying from a U.S. company and strengthening their partnerships with the United States.