March 21, 2018 / 8:19 PM / a month ago

U.S. lawmakers launch bill bolstering nuclear proliferation safeguards

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill on Wednesday to ensure that countries striking deals with Washington on sharing nuclear power technology abandon fuel-making activities that could be altered to make material for nuclear weapons.

U.S. Representatives Ilea Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican, and Brad Sherman, a Democrat, introduced the bill as officials from Saudi Arabia work with the administration of President Donald Trump on a deal that could relax safeguards on nuclear proliferation.

The bill would reform current U.S. nuclear energy law to force countries in nuclear partnerships to renounce the pursuit of enrichment and preprocessing technologies and capabilities. The bill also requires a stronger approval process by Congress of civilian nuclear deals.

Saudi Arabia has previously refused to sign any agreement with Washington that would deprive it of the possibility of one day enriching uranium.

Although the bill faces an uncertain future, it sends a message to both Saudi Arabia and the Trump administration that Congress could take steps against any deal that lacks the safeguards, which are known as “gold standard” of such agreements.

Some lawmakers are concerned that if Saudi Arabia and other countries are allowed to enrich uranium that it could one day lead to a nuclear weapons race in the Middle East.

“Congress must ensure that U.S. national security interests are not trumped by political concerns,” said Sherman.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill.  

Saudi Arabia said it needs nuclear power to move away from burning crude oil to generate electricity and to diversify its economy. Earlier this month its cabinet approved a national policy programme that limits all nuclear activities to peaceful purposes.

Still, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sal man, told CBS in an interview on Sunday ahead of a trip to Washington that the kingdom will develop nuclear weapons if its arch-rival Iran does so.

A deal could breathe some life into the U.S. nuclear power industry which is suffering from an abundance of cheap natural gas, a competing fuel for electricity, and ballooning safety costs. Rick Perry, the U.S. energy secretary, met in London early this month with Saudi officials to discuss the deal.

Ros-Lehtinen and Sherman also sent a letter to Perry urging the Trump administration to seek for binding commitments against enrichment and preprocessing in its talks with Saudi Arabia. 

In addition, Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, urged Perry to immediately brief Congress on his talks in London with Saudi officials, which also included at least one lawyer from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Issues as critical as nuclear nonproliferation require engagement with Congress given their major implications for U.S. national security,” Markey said in the letter.

The Energy Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment about either of the letters.

Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Diane Craft

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