A nuclear regulatory official stressed that his agency will have the chance to weigh in on the outcome of atomic energy discussions between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia—talks that have taken on a possible military dimension.
Jeffery Baran, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said Wednesday that the body must make “certain statutory findings” before recommending the approval of export licenses.
“We aren’t at that stage yet,” he said in testimony before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Baran was asked about NRC oversight by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who noted ongoing discussions with Saudi Arabia may “allow for the enrichment of uranium, which all previous US agreements have prohibited.”
The commissioner told Markey that he couldn’t properly analyze US-Saudi dealings “without having any sense of what’s actually agreed to,” but confirmed that civilian nuclear energy production is possible without domestic uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing.
“It’s not necessary,” Baran said. Uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing can be used to create nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration’s talks with Saudi Arabia were confirmed late last month by Christopher Ford, the director of counterproliferation for the National Security Council. Ford characterized civilian requirements as a “desired outcome,” but didn’t describe them as necessary.
Last week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry declined to comment on the possibility of uranium enrichment being included in the deal, according to Reuters.
“It is not for me to negotiate the deal but we have agreed to move forward,” Perry told reporters in Riyadh amid ongoing bilateral discussions.
Reuters noted that Saudi Arabia has refused previous deals that would have ruled out “the possibility of one day enriching uranium itself.”
In order to enter into a nuclear cooperation deal with the US, countries must commit to “nonproliferation norms,” according to the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The State Department is responsible for hashing out so-called “123 Agreements” with consultation from the NRC, and with technical assistance from the NNSA and the Department of Energy.
The NRC is an independent agency with three political appointees. Baran is the only Democratic commissioner, as is the custom when a Republican controls the White House.
The United States currently has “123 Agreements” with four dozen countries, including Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Republicans have been fiercely critical of the Obama administration’s decision to permit Iran to engage in limited uranium enrichment activities “while denying the same to America’s ally Saudi Arabia,” as ProPublica noted.
“The Obama administration held firm with the Saudis because it’s one thing to cap nuclear technology where it already exists, but it’s longstanding US policy not to spread the technology to new countries,” the publication added.
The Iranian government has known how to enrich uranium since the late 1980s. The country’s civilian nuclear program dates back to when the country was a US ally—before the Revolution of 1979, when Iran was ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.
In October, Trump threatened to pull the US out of the the nuclear deal, which was also signed by Iran, all other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany.
The President asked Congress to pass legislation changing the agreement. The effort has been stalled due to opposition from Senate Democrats and European envoys concerned about unilateral revisions.
Before October, the Trump administration had certified Iran’s compliance with the deal twice, as is required every 90 days by Congress. The next certification deadline is set to take place in January.