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Saudi Arabia must OK nonproliferation standard: U.S. energy secretary

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia must commit to a broad international monitoring program of nuclear power facilities if it develops nuclear power reactors with technology from the United States, U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told lawmakers on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry attends a news conference in Baghdad, Iraq, December 11, 2018. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani/File Photo

“Yes sir, that has been our position in all of our conversations that we have had with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Perry, a Republican, told U.S. Representative Brad Sherman, a Democrat. Sherman asked Perry at a congressional hearing to commit that the Trump administration would not enter a cooperation agreement on nuclear power with Saudi Arabia unless it agrees to a so-called additional protocol.

The 1993 additional protocol increases the International Atomic Energy Agency’s ability to verify that nuclear facilities are peaceful through inspections and other means. More than 130 countries have agreed to additional protocols, but the measure has been resisted by Saudi Arabia.

As the Trump administration has held quiet talks with Saudi Arabia about the development of nuclear power reactors, lawmakers have been pressing it for information about those negotiations and to hold it to strict nonproliferation standards.

Riyadh plans to issue a multibillion-dollar tender in 2020 to build its first two commercial nuclear power reactors. Originally expected last year, the tender has been delayed several times.

The United States, South Korea, Russia, China and France are competing for the business. Reactor builder Westinghouse, which has been hit by a decline in the U.S. nuclear power industry, would likely sell components to Saudi Arabia in any deal involving U.S. technology. Westinghouse is now owned by Brookfield Asset Management Inc.

Perry told Sherman that South Korea cannot freely enter into an agreement to build reactors in Saudi Arabia with U.S. technology unless Riyadh has signed a pact with Washington on nonproliferation standards, known as a 123 agreement.

Saudi Arabia has also pushed back against nonproliferation standards on any program, including limits on enriching uranium and reprocessing of plutonium, both of which are possible paths to making a bomb. Concerns about a potential nuclear arms race in the Middle East rose last year after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS that the kingdom does not want to acquire a nuclear bomb but would develop one if its rival Iran did.

The Trump administration has granted seven authorizations to companies to share sensitive preliminary information about nuclear power technology since 2017, it has revealed under pressure from lawmakers.

Two of the agreements, known as part 810 authorizations, were granted to Saudi Arabia shortly after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, lawmakers who had pushed for months to see the approvals said earlier this month.

Perry told Sherman that the administration would in the future share any future part 810 agreements granted to Saudi Arabia promptly with lawmakers involved with nonproliferation policy. “The caveat on that would be unless the company deems them to be proprietary,” Perry said.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Jonathan Oatis