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Nonproliferation Budget Sees Some Hikes
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Cole Harvey and Daniel Horner

The Obama administration is asking Congress for significant funding increases in programs designed to secure nuclear material in Russia and detect radioactive material passing through the world's busiest ports, according to budget documents released in May.

But the proposed budget would also reduce funding for some other nonproliferation initiatives, including the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. The request partially reflects President Barack Obama's pledge, made during his April 5 speech in Prague, to "set new standards, expand our cooperation with Russia, [and] pursue new partnerships" in order to "secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years." However, Thomas D'Agostino, who heads the Department of Energy's semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), said in congressional testimony that the fiscal year 2010 budget request is not fully representative of the president's four-year plan because budget planning for that fiscal year already was well under way when Obama took office and spelled out his goals to the NNSA. Fiscal year 2010 begins Oct. 1, 2009.

Increases for Nonproliferation Security

The administration is asking for funding increases of 20 to 50 percent for various programs that aim to bolster nuclear security in Russia. The funds would be used to tighten security for warheads and weapons-usable material held by the Russian navy and Strategic Rocket Forces, by the state-controlled Rosatom weapons complex, and at civilian nuclear sites. The NNSA, which oversees the programs, intends to upgrade outdated security equipment at those facilities and help train Russian security personnel, according to the budget documents. All told, the programs working in Russia would have their budgets raised to a combined $279.6 million, an increase of more than $54 million.

The program that would get the largest boost under the heading of international nuclear materials protection is known as Second Line of Defense (SLD). Through the SLD program, the United States helps install radiation detection equipment at border crossings, airports, and strategic seaports around the world. The Obama administration is requesting $272.7 million for the program in fiscal year 2010, up from the $174.8 million appropriated in 2009. Most of this money would be used to install detection equipment at 15 additional seaports and to maintain existing installations elsewhere.

The proposed NNSA budget would more than triple funding for verifying declared nuclear activities and detecting clandestine nuclear programs in "countries of proliferation concern." In fiscal year 2010, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Verification program would use part of a $56.9 million budget to assist with the dismantlement of North Korea's nuclear program. It is unclear whether these activities will take place, given Pyongyang's April 14 repudiation of the 2007 denuclearization agreements reached through the six-party negotiations and its announced resumption of spent fuel reprocessing. (See ACT, May 2009.)

According to D'Agostino's May 13 testimony before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, the proposed budget would also add $15 million to the Next Generation Safeguards Initiative, which aims to "strengthen the international safeguards system and the International Atomic Energy Agency." According to the NNSA budget, the initiative is supposed to develop "advanced safeguards approaches, technologies, and equipment" and to cultivate a new generation of safeguards specialists.

Reductions in Other Programs

Not all nonproliferation programs would get a boost under the president's budget. In total, the administration's request would trim the budget for nonproliferation and verification research and development by $66 million and the budget for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) by $42 million, a drop of 18 percent and 11 percent, respectively. The GTRI is responsible for securing and eliminating nuclear material around the world.

The largest budgetary reductions in the NNSA's nonproliferation efforts are due to the completion of projects. The NNSA requested only $24.5 million for a program to shut down Russian reactors that generate weapons-grade plutonium and replace them with fossil-fuel power plants. The program received $141.3 million in fiscal year 2009. Fiscal year 2010 will be the final year of funding for the program, although the last of the three reactors-the only one currently operating-will shut down in fiscal year 2011, according to NNSA budget documents.

Similarly, a program to move 13,000 kilograms of weapons-usable fissile material to secure storage from a reactor in Kazakhstan is expected to be completed this year. The program is requesting $9 million for fiscal year 2010, less than 20 percent of its fiscal year 2009 appropriation of $52.8 million.

Some ongoing nonproliferation efforts would also have their budgets trimmed. The proposed budget would cut funds for converting civilian non-power nuclear reactors to use low-enriched uranium (LEU) rather than highly enriched uranium (HEU). HEU can be used as fissile material in nuclear weapons, while LEU is suitable only for use in reactors. The administration budget would provide $71.5 million for the reactor conversion program, an $11.8 million drop. The administration would similarly allocate $97 million to a program that returns spent HEU to Russia from neighboring countries, a reduction of $33 million from fiscal year 2009 funding.

At a May 21 House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee hearing, D'Agostino was asked to explain the proposed reductions, given Obama's stated commitment to nuclear nonproliferation. "We recognize that President Obama has laid out a fairly aggressive goal," D'Agostino said. "What we're doing right now...is developing the detailed four-year plan on what it would actually take to achieve that goal," he said, referring to the timetable Obama cited in his Prague speech.

Obama's priorities were transmitted to the NNSA around the time of the president's inauguration, D'Agostino said. "By then, we were [already] working the budget," he said.

D'Agostino went on to say that subsequent budgets will more accurately reflect the president's priorities. "My expectation is that the program that...we're going to send to the White House in September, just a few months away from now, will be significantly different" from the current request, D'Agostino said.

Under the U.S. budget process, government agencies draft their budgets and send them to the White House's Office of Management and Budget to vet them before the requests are submitted to Congress.

NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Kenneth Baker told the appropriations panel that accomplishing Obama's goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material within four years "will take a lot more money...[and] a lot more people." D'Agostino similarly called the plan "a huge challenge." He added that the NNSA is "in the position now of trying to knock down the details of this four-year plan and be ready to...make sure the White House is aware of the kind of work that has to happen."

Increase Requested for MOX Plant

Overall, the NNSA is requesting $2.14 billion for its nonproliferation programs for fiscal year 2010, up from $1.48 billion in 2009. The bulk of the increase comes from the transfer back to the NNSA of the roughly $500 million in funding for construction of a mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant at the Energy Department's Savannah River site in South Carolina. The program had historically been in the NNSA but, on the initiative of the energy subcommittee, was transferred to the Office of Nuclear Energy because the panel questioned its nonproliferation value. The Bush administration's Energy Department resisted the move, sparking a long-running battle with the subcommittee.

It is not clear whether the subcommittee will continue to insist that the MOX program remain in the nuclear energy office. The two main advocates of that step were Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-Ind.), who chairs the subcommittee, and Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio). Hobson, who was the panel's top Republican, has retired from Congress. Visclosky's office did not respond to a request for comment, and neither he nor other members of the panel raised the point at the May 21 hearing.

The fiscal year 2010 request for MOX construction is $504 million, up from the fiscal year 2009 appropriation of $468 million. The request also includes funds for other activities related to the MOX facility.

The MOX plant, which is being built by Energy Department contractor Shaw Areva MOX Services, is the centerpiece of the NNSA's plutonium-disposition program. Under that program, surplus U.S. weapons plutonium is to be fabricated into MOX fuel for U.S. reactors. MOX fuel is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides. All U.S. reactors now run on fuel made from uranium oxide.

The only U.S. utility to sign up for the MOX fuel was Duke Energy, but it allowed its contract with Shaw Areva MOX Services to lapse Dec. 1, 2008. At that time and since, the two sides have said they are in negotiations to reinstate the contract.

At the May 21 hearing, the NNSA's Baker said there are candidates besides Duke Energy to take the fuel. Areva spokesman Jarret Adams said May 26 that there have been discussions with Duke Energy and three other companies, but he declined to name the three.

The MOX program has always envisioned contracts with more than one utility. An October letter by Shaw Areva MOX Services seeking an "expression of interest" from U.S. utilities with nuclear reactors said the Duke commitment would account for 950 of the 1,700 MOX fuel assemblies that the plant is expected to produce.

According to the letter, construction is expected to be finished in April 2014, and the plant is scheduled to start producing MOX fuel in 2018.

Cooperative Threat Reduction Cut

At the Department of Defense, the Obama administration is requesting $404.1 million for its CTR program, which assists foreign governments in destroying or securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, as well as associated materials and delivery vehicles. That figure is $30 million less than the appropriation in fiscal year 2009. Decreases in funding for biological threat reduction and strategic offensive arms dismantlement programs account for most of the $30 million drop.

The administration is requesting $152.1 million to secure stocks of dangerous pathogens and develop disease monitoring networks in eastern Europe and Central Asia, down $33.4 million from fiscal year 2009. The Strategic Offensive Arms Elimination program would similarly be cut by $13.6 million to $66.4 million in 2010. The latter program assists Russia in destroying some of its ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, as well as associated launchers. In fiscal year 2010, the administration expects to dismantle roughly half as many strategic missiles as it planned for in 2009.

Some CTR programs are slated for funding increases. The Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation Prevention Initiative would see its budget raised to $90.9 million from $59.3 million in the current fiscal year. Much of this increase is intended to enhance security at the former testing site in Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan.

A nuclear weapons transportation security program would get a boost under the president's budget, up $5.6 million to $46.4 million. The money would be used to transport deactivated Russian warheads from deployed locations to storage and to purchase modified railcars for that purpose.

Posted: June 4, 2009