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Nuclear regulators were unaware of transfer of sensitive technical information to Saudi Arabia

A Saudi flag is seen at a conference in Baku, Azerbaijan, on March 18, 2019. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

When the Trump administration on seven occasions authorized companies to share sensitive nuclear energy information with Saudi Arabia, it was supposed to consult with several agencies, including the independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

But NRC Chairman Kristine L. Svinicki testified before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on Tuesday that she did not know whether the agency had been consulted, and if so whether it had raised any concerns.

At one point Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked four questions in a row about the agency’s participation, pausing after each one, and Svinicki and her four fellow commissioners remained silent.

“I know you don’t have sign-off authority, but none of you at this table know whether the NRC raised any concerns about entering in these 810 authorizations?” he asked.

“I do not,” Svinicki replied.

The term “Part 810 authorizations” refers to permission given to share technological information but not pieces of equipment. For that, companies need a different approval under a 123 Agreement, which the United States and Saudi Arabia have not agreed on.

The exchange between Van Hollen and Svinicki illustrates growing concern in Congress over the Energy Department’s authorization of Part 810 information — nonclassified but sensitive details about nuclear energy reactors U.S. companies are trying to sell to Saudi Arabia.

Last week, the administration divulged that it had kept secret from Congress as well as the public seven authorizations for nuclear energy companies to use in wooing Saudi Arabia, a potential customer interested in building two nuclear reactors for civilian purposes. The information kept under wraps includes the identity of the companies and the type of information.

In the past, that information has been placed in the Energy Department’s reading room. But Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the companies had asked for confidentiality because of proprietary information.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) on Tuesday sent a letter to Perry demanding that the administration share more information about the Part 810 disclosures with the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific and nonproliferation.

“I fully understand and respect the need for U.S. companies to protect their proprietary information from competitors,” Sherman wrote. “At the same time, however, Congress must be given sufficient information to fulfill its constitutional oversight responsibilities.”

He noted that the Atomic Energy Act “stated in a number of clauses that the executive branch must keep Congress ‘fully and currently informed.’ ”

In the Senate hearing Van Hollen said, “You have a statutory and regulatory role to play here, and I’ve got to say it’s astounding that not a single one of you is aware of whether, when and what role the NRC played in that particular authorization.”

Members of Congress also are seeking information about when the 810 approvals were issued, an effort to determine whether the administration issued any of them after the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Van Hollen pressed Svinicki on that timing, just as lawmakers had pressed Perry on timing last week.

“I don’t have that answer for you today, senator,” Svinicki said Tuesday. “I would need to get back to you.”

In an interview later, Van Hollen said that administration officials “appear willing to short-circuit the process to achieve their political goal of continuing to cozy up to the Saudi regime.” He added, “at the very least it is clearly unwilling to stand up to the Saudis on human rights while at the same time bending over backwards to give the Saudis access to nuclear material and technology.”