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Trump's Efforts To Develop Saudi Arabia's Nuclear Energy Program Has Some Concerned


Saudi Arabia says it wants nuclear power, and it's looking for companies to help build the reactors. The Trump administration has granted authorization to seven U.S. companies to begin sharing some unclassified nuclear energy information with Saudi Arabia, but many in Congress are worried that the kingdom is going to misuse its nuclear technology. NPR's Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: The so-called Part 810 authorizations granted by the Trump administration are a routine first step for U.S. companies wanting to sell nuclear reactors or technology to foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia. They're normally made public, but this time, the Energy Department didn't release the documents or even the names of the seven companies involved.

EMILY HAWTHORNE: That's why this is such a contentious issue between the White House and Congress right now.

NORTHAM: Emily Hawthorne is a Middle East analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical intelligence company.

HAWTHORNE: You know, Congress is trying to really weigh that long-term risk that Saudi Arabia could eventually use technology that it uses on a civilian nuclear energy program toward making a nuclear weapon. And that creates a risky security environment in a very strategically important and already unstable part of the world.

NORTHAM: Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the names of the U.S. companies were kept private to protect proprietary information. But many in Congress are uncomfortable with the relationship between the White House and Saudi Arabia, particularly its Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who has vowed to match Iran's nuclear program but is also under increased scrutiny after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last October.

Democratic Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts is part of a bipartisan group now introducing legislation to ensure congressional oversight of all nuclear technology transfers.

ED MARKEY: Right now we're in the dark as well as the American people, and that's just not the way our country should work.

NORTHAM: A recent report by a House Oversight Committee detailed how in the early days of the administration, White House officials and allies rushed to sell civilian nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia despite objections from administration lawyers. Although many of those officials are now gone, the report said a company linked to some of them called IP3 was still helping other American companies dealing with Saudi nuclear projects. Max Bergmann covered nonproliferation issues in the Obama administration's State Department. He says many assume that effort had ended.

MAX BERGMANN: It's become pared back in the ambition in scope. But the idea of U.S.-Saudi nuclear cooperation still remains alive and well within the Trump administration.

NORTHAM: Bergmann points to a meeting in early February between Trump and executives from nuclear power corporations, including Westinghouse. That company was bought by Brookfield Asset Management, which also paid more than a billion dollars for a long-term lease on a Manhattan property belonging to the family of White House adviser and Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner. Bergmann says that could just be a coincidence, but it shows the need for more transparency.

BERGMANN: We have a lot of these very sort of disturbing connections and ties, which raises the question of whether the Trump administration is actually pursuing nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia to advance U.S. national security interests or whether it is doing that to advance the economic interests of perhaps people within the Trump administration.

NORTHAM: President Trump has said Saudi business is important for the U.S. economy. And analysts say U.S. nuclear companies face stiff competition from Russian, Chinese and French firms also trying to get a foothold in Saudi Arabia. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID KITT'S "HAMMER TIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.