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U.S. senators urge Trump administration to end nuclear talks with Saudis

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By Reuters
U.S. senators urge Trump administration to end nuclear talks with Saudis

By Timothy Gardner

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two Democratic U.S. senators on Wednesday urged Trump administration officials to halt talks with Saudi Arabia on building nuclear reactors after weekend attacks that halved the country’s oil output and increased instability in the Middle East.

U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry told reporters on Tuesday at a nuclear power conference in Vienna the United States would only provide Saudi Arabia with nuclear power technology if it signed an agreement with a U.N. watchdog allowing for intrusive snap inspections.

But Saudi Arabia has resisted agreeing to strict nonproliferation restrictions, known as the gold standard, that would block it from enriching uranium and reprocessing spent fuel, both of which are potential pathways to making a nuclear bomb.

Senators Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley, members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Perry urging the administration to discontinue recent talks with the kingdom about nuclear power development.

The lawmakers have been concerned about Saudi Arabia’s reluctance to agree to the gold standard, after de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year his country does not want nuclear weapons but will pursue them if its rival Iran develops one.

“Sharing nuclear technology with Saudi Arabia, especially without adequate safeguards, will give Riyadh the tools it needs to turn the Crown Prince’s nuclear weapons vision into reality,” said the letter from Markey and Merkley, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

The State Department and Energy Department did not immediately comment. Perry has said that if the United States does not work with Saudi Arabia, other suppliers such as China and Russia, could help Saudi Arabia develop nuclear power.

But some lawmakers say Washington would have tools to counter that if it believed the Saudis were not agreeing to adequate nuclear safeguards.

In February, Markey and Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican, joined lawmakers in the House of Representatives in introducing legislation that would increase congressional oversight over any civil nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia.

A nonproliferation expert said the talks between the United States and Saudi Arabia should be shelved.

“Why would you even consider it after the attack on an energy facility?” said Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center. “What makes you think building another energy facility that’s radioactive is smart?”

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Tom Brown)