April 02, 2019

Nuclear Regulatory Commission Totally Fails to Answer Van Hollen Questions about Planned Exports to Saudi Arabia

Svinivki, Commissioners Unable to Speak to Involvement Despite Legal Requirement that NRC be Consulted

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen questioned U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Kristine Svinicki on the NRC’s role in the Administration’s recently reported approval of the export of civil nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. In response to Senator Van Hollen’s questions, neither Chairman Svinivki nor the four other NRC Commissioners on the panel could provide answers on the NRC’s involvement in this decision. A full transcript of the exchange is available below, and video is available here.  

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN, D-MD: Thank you Madam Chairman, and thank all of you for your testimony today. As we’ve heard, the NRC plays a vital role in regulating the domestic nuclear industry, by ensuring the secure and safe use of nuclear materials. That’s the goal. You also play an important role in regulating nuclear exports – exports abroad – by ensuring that U.S. nuclear materials and technology do not fall into the wrong hands. In other words, you’re part of a mechanism that’s supposed to pursue rigorous due-diligence when it comes to these export controls.

I’m concerned that when it comes to Saudi Arabia, this Administration is severely testing the strength of the alignment between the NRC’s role, the DOE’s role, and the goal of non-proliferation policy. Reportedly, and I think they’ve confirmed, they’re pursuing a nuclear cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia, which has enforced the lowest standard of international safeguards. A country whose leaders have loosely talked about acquiring nuclear weapons. And a country that we know consistently flouts international norms. And now, this Administration wants to do nuclear business with Saudi Arabia. Last week, DOE confirmed that the Administration has deepened nuclear cooperation with Saudi Arabia – Secretary of Energy Perry acknowledged that the Department of Energy has issued seven undisclosed Part 810 authorizations to American companies to transfer unspecified nuclear technology and know-how to Saudi Arabia. In my view, it doesn’t appear that the Administration is exercising due-diligence. I know the NRC is not the lead agency here, but under the statute and regulations, you play a consulting role. In fact, it’s required that the DOE consult with you on these. So my question, Madam Chairman, is when did the Department of Energy consult with the NRC on issuing these seven Part 810 authorizations?

KRISTINE SVINIVKI, CHAIRMAN, NRC: Thank you, Senator. As you describe, under the Atomic Energy Act, the NRC does have a consultative role – it is not a concurrence role – and, again, it is not an opinion on U.S. foreign policy. But we have a consultative role under the law, because, as you note, should the U.S. get to a point where they are exporting components and nuclear materials, the NRC is the central export licensing authority for that. The NRC’s consultative role, I would generally describe as something that they’re looking at whether matters of law and -- under an 810 -- or whether or not you could effectuate the export licensing, should you get to that point. So it is a narrow consultation on some matters of expertise of the Agency, but it differs from our role in the export process.

VAN HOLLEN: No, Madame Chairman, my question was not what’s the nature of your role -- you have a role. So my question was when did the Department of Energy consult with the NRC with respect to the Part 810 authorizations to Saudi Arabia?

SVINIVKI: I don’t have that answer for you today Senator. I would need to get back to you.

VAN HOLLEN: I would like you to get back as soon as possible. I mean, these 810 authorizations were apparently kept secret. And I must say I’m surprised. Were you involved in the consultation?

SVINIVKI: In general since the role is narrow–

VAN HOLLEN: No, I mean specifically on the 810 authorizations.

SVINIVKI: The members of the Commission – this is a delegated staff process.

VAN HOLLEN: Were any of you individually involved? Nobody at the table was part of that 810 consultation process?

SVINIVKI: [No response]

VAN HOLLEN: Alright, so then you wouldn’t know when it took place? I see. I must say, that’s staggering. So you don’t know whether or not the NRC raised any concerns as part of this consulting process? 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?

SVINIVKI: I do not.

VAN HOLLEN: Okay. Madam Chairman – I would like the Committee – I would request that you get this information as soon as possible. This just came to light. 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.