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"[Arms Control Today is] Absolutely essential reading for the upcoming Congressional budget debate on the 2018 NPR and its specific recommendations ... well-informed, insightful, balanced, and filled with common sense."

– Frank Klotz
former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
Energy Official, GAO Testify on DOE Threat Reduction Efforts

Philipp C. Bleek

The Energy Department will have to “curtail” its non-proliferation activities at the reduced funding levels proposed by the administration, the head of the department’s National Nuclear Security division testified before a Senate subcommittee May 15. At the same hearing, the General Accounting Office (GAO) presented critiques of the Material Protection, Control, and Accounting (MPC&A) program and the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI)—two key department non-proliferation programs that the administration has targeted for substantial cuts.

In April, the administration submitted a budget proposal to Congress that would reduce Department of Energy (DOE) Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation funding from its current level of about $875 million to $775 million, with the bulk of proposed cuts impacting nuclear non-proliferation efforts in Russia. Intended to secure vulnerable fissile material and assist Russia in safely downsizing its ponderous nuclear complex, the programs face substantial funding decreases from just over $300 million this year  to about $200 million in fiscal year 2002.

The proposed cuts to programs that traditionally enjoy broad bipartisan support have sparked considerable concern in Congress. (See ACT, May 2001.) The House-Senate conference budget resolution approved by both houses in early May, while essentially mirroring the president’s proposed budget and therefore failing to reinstate the proposed cuts, specifically calls on the administration to restore $100 million in funding for DOE’s non-proliferation programs.

General John Gordon, undersecretary for nuclear security, testified before the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee that, given proposed budget cuts, “it should be apparent and obvious that we will have to curtail efforts in several areas and potentially lose momentum in some.” But Gordon also noted that the programs are under review and held out the possibility that the administration could “request a readjustment of the budget once these reviews are complete.” Gordon stated that he expects the administration to develop an “overarching strategy” that takes a “fresh look” at the initiatives in the context of overall policy toward Russia.

At the hearing, the General Accounting Office presented two recent analyses: a May 3 critique of the NCI and an earlier February 28 report on the MPC&A program. Each report praised the programs’ efforts to date but raised questions about their ongoing implementation and recommended that strategic plans be developed for both.

GAO criticized the “limited success” of the Nuclear Cities Initiative’s efforts to establish jobs for weapons scientists in Russia’s nuclear cities and recommended the development of a plan with “clearly defined goals” to assist in determining the program’s future scope and direction. Noting that to date the bulk of program funds have been expended in U.S. laboratories rather than on-site in Russia, GAO suggested allocating a greater proportion of funds to the nuclear cities. GAO also recommended considering a merger of the Nuclear Cities Initiative with another program working to provide jobs for Russian weapons scientists, the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP). Gordon emphasized at the hearing that his department had taken the recommendations to heart and was in the process of both implementing them and reviewing a possible merger of the NCI and IPP programs.

Concerning MPC&A, a program designed to safeguard Russia’s weapons-usable fissile material, GAO noted that the Energy Department is already developing a strategic plan but recommended that the plan take into account the sustainability of security upgrades in Russia. It also suggested considering the issues of inadequate access to sensitive sites and consolidation of nuclear materials stored at separate locations, which it considers necessary for completion of the program’s work. Gordon concurred that “significant work remains to be done” and emphasized his willingness to implement the office’s major recommendations.

Following repeated queries from Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), Gordon suggested that the administration’s ongoing threat reduction review might wrap up “in a month or so.” After Roberts remarked that he and Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) were getting “a little testy” about the length of the review process, Gordon observed that some of his staff shared the senators’ sentiments, noting that those executing the programs were reluctant to undertake actions that might put them “out of sync” with the administration.