US senator urges Biden to include safeguards in any nuclear power deal with Saudi Arabia

U.S. Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA) speaks during a press conference, in Washington

By Timothy Gardner and Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A Democratic U.S. senator on Wednesday urged President Joe Biden to include strict nonproliferation safeguards in any nuclear power deal with Saudi Arabia that might come as part of a potential normalization of relations agreement brokered by Washington between the kingdom and Israel.

The Biden administration has been talking with Saudi Arabia and Israel on a potential peace agreement since before the Oct. 7 deadly attacks by Hamas on Israel and talks have continued during the Israeli war on the militant group in Gaza.

An agreement to help develop nuclear power in Saudi Arabia could benefit the U.S. nuclear industry which would supply technology.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the negotiations with Riyadh still are underway.

Senator Edward Markey, a longtime advocate for nonproliferation safeguards, said in a letter to fellow Democrat Biden that Saudi Arabia, "a nation with a terrible human rights record", cannot be trusted to use its nuclear program purely for peaceful purposes and will seek to develop nuclear weapons.

Markey and other Democrats are critics of the country and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, over human rights, his intervention in Yemen’s civil war and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi that U.S. spy agencies assessed was ordered by the prince.

The prince has said for years the kingdom will develop nuclear weapons if regional rival Iran does.

"I urge your Administration to ensure that the path towards Middle East peace holds Saudi Arabia accountable for its appalling human rights practices and constrains its ability

to become a nuclear power," Markey said in a letter to Biden and other officials.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The letter, first reported by Reuters, urges the administration to adopt so-called "gold standard" nonproliferation safeguards, based on the 123 agreement in U.S. nuclear energy law that prohibit uranium enrichment and nuclear reprocessing, two pathways to nuclear weapons. The UAE agreed to these safeguards when it built a nuclear plant in 2021.

Markey also urged the administration to insist that Saudi Arabia also be held to the "additional protocol" standards of the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, which requires monitoring and inspections.

The National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.

Some experts question whether the timing and political circumstances will allow a U.S.-Saudi deal that leads to Riyadh normalizing relations with Israel.

Perhaps most critically, Saudi Arabia has called for an immediate truce leading to a permanent and sustainable ceasefire in Israel's war against Hamas and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, both of which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected.

Time is growing short for the Biden administration to shepherd a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement and defense pact through the congressional approval process as lawmakers focus on campaigning ahead of the Nov. 5 elections.

(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; Additional reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Michael Erman)