(Adds details of Sept 4 letter from Perry to former Saudi Arabia energy minister on nuclear talks)
By Timothy Gardner
WASHINGTON, Sept 18 (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, 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.
In a Sept. 4 letter to Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, who was replaced by Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman on Sunday, Perry said an agreement on nuclear power “must also contain a commitment by the kingdom to forgo any enrichment and reprocessing for the term of the agreement.”
But the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, did not clarify the length of the “term” the kingdom would have to forgo those practices or whether it covered U.S. origin uranium or uranium from other countries.
A nonproliferation expert said the administration wants to convey the idea it supports the gold standard, but the ambiguity means it remains unclear if it does.
“Why would you even consider helping the kingdom build nuclear reactors 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?”
Perry has said that if the United States does not work with Saudi Arabia, other suppliers such as China and Russia could help the kingdom develop nuclear power.
But some lawmakers say if China or Russia helped the kingdom develop nuclear power without adequate nonproliferation safeguards Washington has the tools to counter that.
Riyadh plans to issue a multi-billion-dollar tender in 2020 to construct its first two nuclear power reactors, with U.S., Russian, South Korean, Chinese and French firms involved in preliminary talks.
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. (Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Editing by Tom Brown and David Gregorio)