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Threat Reduction Boosted By Policy Review, Spending Bills
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Philipp C. Bleek

Programs to secure Russia’s vulnerable nuclear materials and expertise received a positive report card from a White House review unveiled December 27, and President George W. Bush signed spending bills in late December and early January that will significantly boost funding for key threat reduction efforts.

The White House launched its threat reduction review in March, after its plans to cut funding for threat reduction programs were strongly criticized by Congress. (See ACT, April 2001.) Early reports indicated that the review would recommend downsizing or even terminating key programs. However, the review of more than 30 programs, which had a combined 2001 budget of about $750 million, determined that most of the programs “work well, are focused on priority tasks, and are well managed,” and it identified several for expansion and reorganization.

Within two weeks of announcing the results of the White House review, the president signed the defense authorization and appropriation bills, which granted the administration’s full request of $403 million for the Defense Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program, a modest reduction from 2001 levels of $443 million. Emergency supplemental funding in the appropriations bill also provides an additional $226 million to fiscal year 2002 funds for Energy Department threat reduction programs, which had been allocated $804 million by the energy and water appropriations act in November, $70 million less than they received in 2001. (See ACT, December 2001.)

In addition to specifying funding levels, the bills include threat reduction-related restrictions and requirements. Most broadly, the defense authorization act requires the president to submit by June 15 a plan, which should cover “all relevant Federal agencies,” for securing, downsizing, and disposing of Russia’s nuclear weapons, fissile material, and expertise. The legislation also encourages the president consult with the “relevant states” of the former Soviet Union and with the “appropriate committees of Congress.”

Programmatic Changes

The threat reduction review and spending bills also mandated a number of changes to specific threat reduction programs.

The review decided to transfer to the Energy Department a Pentagon program to shut down three Russian plutonium production reactors and to construct conventional power plants to take their place. That decision should allay the concerns of some defense officials and lawmakers who had been reluctant to allocate Defense Department funds for the construction of conventional power plants.

The administration’s review also decided to expand the Energy Department’s Material Protection, Control, and Accounting program, which helps Russia secure vulnerable nuclear sites. Administration officials declined to provide any additional details.

The administration had sought only $139 million for fiscal year 2002 funding for the program, but Congress restored funding to the 2001 level of $173 million in the energy and water appropriations act. (See ACT, May and December 2001.) The program also received an additional $120 million boost from emergency supplemental appropriations.

The administration’s review further decided to consolidate two other key Energy Department programs—the Nuclear Cities Initiative (NCI) and the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention—a move the General Accounting Office had recommended last May. (See ACT, June 2001.) Both programs seek to provide alternative employment for Russian weapons scientists, and officials felt they could be implemented more efficiently if they were merged.

The appropriations bill allocated $42 million for these programs, a significant increase from the administration’s $29 million request, and the emergency supplemental provides an additional $15 million. But the authorization bill restricts NCI operations to a limited number of sites, pending an agreement securing U.S. access to all 10 nuclear cities and four other sites the program covers. Access difficulties, resulting from Russia’s reluctance to open sensitive nuclear weapons facilities to outsiders, have impeded the program’s efforts to date.

The threat reduction review also slates for reorganization the Plutonium Disposition program, an Energy Department initiative intended to implement pledges by Moscow and Washington to dispose of 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium. (See ACT, July/August 2000.) Although the White House remains “committed” to the program, the Energy and Defense departments are examining “alternative approaches” to the initiative, aiming to make it “less costly and more effective.”

The Plutonium Disposition program remains controversial on the domestic front. Lawmakers inserted language into the defense authorization bill that bars shipment of plutonium to South Carolina’s Savannah River nuclear site absent a detailed report from the energy secretary by February 1 on his department’s plans to dispose of surplus plutonium at the site. The act also requires the secretary of energy to consult with the South Carolina governor on disposition plans.

Last year, the Bush administration suspended work on plutonium immobilization, which, along with a process known as irradiation, were the two plutonium disposition approaches the Clinton administration had outlined when it signed the plutonium disposition agreement with Russia. (See ACT, July/August 2001.) The move prompted South Carolina officials, who are concerned the suspension would require Savannah River to store plutonium on a long-term basis, to bar plutonium shipments into the state until the administration details its strategy for removing the material. (See ACT, September 2001.)

The administration’s review also singled out two State Department programs for expansion—the International Science and Technology Center (ISTC) and the Redirection of Biological Scientists program, which is primarily implemented through the ISTC. Both programs seek to redirect former Soviet weapons scientists to civilian work. The review also identified a program to design and construct a chemical weapons destruction facility in Russia for acceleration. (See U.S. Reinstates Funds for Russian Chemical Demilitarization.)

Whether the White House’s rhetorical support for threat reduction will translate into funding increases will become clear when the administration submits its 2003 budget proposal to Congress in the coming months. In a January 7 interview, a key Senate staffer welcomed the administration’s stated support for threat reduction efforts, but noted, “It would be nice to see them put their money where their mouths are.” Early signs indicate that the administration’s new budget proposal will substantially boost the programs.

Posted: January 1, 2002