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Senators seek oversight power after Trump administration reveals nuclear energy transfers to Saudi Arabia

Key Points
  • The amendment would require the Energy and State departments to issue a quarterly report to Congress on so-called Part 810 authorizations.
  • The authorizations are issued to companies to discuss nonpublic nuclear technology and consult on atomic energy with foreign countries.
  • Congress and the Trump administration have clashed over Part 810 authorizations for cooperation with Saudi Arabia.
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump are welcomed by Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at Al Murabba Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia May 20, 2017.
Bandar Algaloud | Saudi Royal Court | Handout | Reuters

A group of bipartisan senators on Wednesday introduced legislation that would require the executive branch to regularly disclose when it allows companies to engage in nuclear energy cooperation with foreign countries.

The move comes amid an uproar on Capitol Hill following reports that the Department of Energy gave permission to several companies to share nuclear energy information with Saudi Arabia. The Energy Department later confirmed that it has granted seven of the so-called Part 810 authorizations to U.S. firms competing to build nuclear reactors in the kingdom.

Part 810 authorizations are issued to companies so they can discuss nonpublic nuclear energy technology with foreign counterparts. The companies responding to the Saudi request for bids would need the permissions to make their pitches.

Former U.S. nonproliferation officials tell CNBC the authorizations likely cover very basic information and do not raise concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation. Still, members of Congress have hammered Trump officials over the authorizations in recent budget hearings and moved swiftly to introduce oversight to the Part 810 process.

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On Wednesday, Democratic Sens. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Tim Kaine of Virginia partnered with Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Todd Young of Indiana to introduce an amendment to the Atomic Energy Act. The amendment would require the Energy and State departments to report to Congress any Part 810 applications reviewed and approved or rejected over the last 90 days in a quarterly report.

The amendment would also require the Energy Department to send to Congress all Part 810 authorizations going back to 2015, the last time the department revised the application process.

Finally, the legislation would give the chairman or ranking member of several congressional committees the authority to request any pending or approved Part 810 applications. The Energy Department would have to answer the request within 10 days.

The Energy and State departments are jointly responsible for approving Part 810 authorizations. They are not required to proactively report those permissions to Congress.

The president is required to keep Congress "fully and currently informed of any initiative or negotiations" relating to 123 Agreements, the overarching deals that the U.S. must reach with foreign nations before shipping nuclear equipment and fuel overseas. These agreements lay out nine criteria meant to ensure nuclear energy technology is used responsibly and that transfers do not pave the way to atomic weapons programs.

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Many members of Congress object to selling nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia in light of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents and the kingdom's role in the ongoing war in Yemen. They also point to comments from Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that his country would try to obtain a nuclear weapon if regional rival Iran developed one.

However, in pressing Trump administration members on the Part 810 issue, some senators have made inaccurate and misleading statements in recent weeks.

Misleading claims on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers — including Kaine during a hearing with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Wednesday — have accused the administration of keeping the Part 810 authorizations for Saudi cooperation secret.

In fact, the National Nuclear Security Administration always gives companies the option to keep the authorizations private. It is not up to the agency to disclose or not disclose the authorizations. Nor is it unusual for firms to exercise the option.

Total Part 810 authorizations (orange) vs. authorizations made public (blue)

Rubio and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., issued a press release last week saying the Energy Department took the "unusual step" of issuing Part 810 authorizations for cooperation with Saudi Arabia before reaching a 123 Agreement with the kingdom.

But former U.S. officials have told CNBC there is nothing unusual or untoward about issuing 810 authorizations to a country that does not have a 123 Agreement in place with the U.S. Part 810 agreements can actually help lay the groundwork for a 123 Agreement.

Some lawmakers have also overstated Congress' role in international nuclear energy cooperation, suggesting the Trump administration is freezing them out.

Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., accused Energy Secretary Rick Perry of pushing the Saudis to choose an American company to build its proposed reactors at the expense of "working with Congress to nail down an agreement that will prevent the Saudis from developing a nuclear weapon."

But the executive branch alone is empowered to negotiate a 123 Agreement with a foreign country. Congress has the ability to reject a 123 Agreement once the completed deal is presented to lawmakers.

Despite the misleading claim, Warren later promoted the exchange in a tweet, saying Perry "seemed confused by that law — so I helped him understand it."

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Key Points
  • The Department of Energy has authorized seven companies to share nuclear energy information with Saudi Arabia.
  • News of the approvals has sparked accusations the Trump administration is doing an end-run around Congress and facilitating secret discussions.
  • Veterans of nuclear policy say the authorizations are routine and do not raise immediate concerns about nuclear weapons proliferation.