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US Congress should be kept informed of nuclear talks with Saudi Arabia, watchdog says

Many on Capitol Hill are concerned over ongoing nuclear talks between the Trump administration and Saudi Arabia
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that the kingdom would pursue a nuclear bomb if Iran did so (AFP)

The US Departments of State and Energy should keep Congress informed over nuclear power cooperation with Saudi Arabia, a watchdog in the legislative branch has said.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report on Monday that it was "unclear" whether the department did so – as congressional staff were finding "information on the negotiations from other sources, such as press articles."

The GAO said Congress should consider amending the 1954 Atomic Energy Act to require briefings on nuclear power-sharing negotiations for the foreign policy committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

"GAO is also making a recommendation that the Secretary of State commit to regularly scheduled, substantive briefings to the relevant congressional committees," the report said.

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Last year, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez and Republican Marco Rubio asked the GAO to review US agency negotiations with Saudi Arabia on nuclear power, partly because they were concerned the Energy Department took the lead over the State Department.

In a statement late on Monday, the Senators said they remained "deeply concerned about the lack of interagency coordination and how it might lead to an agreement without proper safeguards to prevent nuclear proliferation."

"Congress must reassert is critical role in reviewing nuclear cooperation agreements to ensure these agreements do not pose an unnecessary risk to the United States," they added.

Many lawmakers on Capitol Hill are concerned over Saudi Arabia's plans to build nuclear power plants for its domestic electricity needs.

The kingdom plans to build nuclear power plants with the help of US companies, but has not ruled out developing atomic weapons.

Riyadh has refused to agree to standards on reprocessing spent fuel and enriching uranium, two potential paths to making nuclear weapons. The United States struck such an agreement with the United Arab Emirates in 2009.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told CBS in 2018 that the kingdom would pursue obtaining a nuclear bomb if its arch-foe Iran did so, but did not want to acquire one in any other case.

The tender for two nuclear power reactors is expected this year, with American, Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms involved in preliminary talks about the multi-billion-dollar project.