The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Wednesday that commission staff members from its international division were consulted over Energy Department authorizations for companies sharing nuclear energy information with Saudi Arabia, even though NRC commissioners had no knowledge of that during a Senate hearing on Tuesday.
Energy Department spokesman Shaylyn Hynes also said that the “NRC staff was consulted, and had no objections to the recommendations, before these authorizations were granted.”
Neither agency would say when or to what companies the authorizations were granted.
The agencies were pushing back after a hearing of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) asked whether the commission had been consulted and whether it had raised concerns given tensions in U.S.-Saudi relations. NRC Chairman Kristine L. Svinicki said she did not know. Neither did her four colleagues on the commission.
At the center of the matter are seven authorizations issued by the Energy Department for companies to share nonclassified but sensitive information about civilian nuclear power plants with Saudi Arabia, which has said it wants to build two reactors. Those authorizations are called Part 810s, and the Energy Department is required to get concurrence from the State Department and to consult with the Commerce Department, the Pentagon and the NRC.
“This case was no exception,” Hynes said.
Companies from four other nations are vying for the Saudi nuclear energy contract. But the United States has continued to insist on stringent terms for what is known as a 123 agreement, needed before any nuclear-related equipment sales can take place. Saudi Arabia has refused to give up the ability to enrich uranium or reprocess spent fuel, both of which the United States worries could contribute to weapons proliferation.
The killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi has added to tensions between the two countries.
In the past, the Energy Department has disclosed the identity of companies and descriptions of the information being shared with foreign nations. But the Energy Department has refused to share any of that even in a confidential setting despite the oversight role of Congress.