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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
NNSA Nonproliferation Funding Poised to Rise
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Daniel Horner

Funding for nonproliferation work in the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would rise by about 25 percent under the Obama administration’s fiscal year 2011 request, with a large part of the increase going to efforts in Russia and the United States to turn surplus weapons plutonium into reactor fuel.

Another NNSA effort that would receive a hefty increase is the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), which aims to secure vulnerable nuclear and radiological material around the world.

The budget request, released Feb. 1, would raise spending in the NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation category to $2.69 billion. Congress appropriated $2.14 billion for that category in fiscal year 2010. Of that $550 million increase, the Fissile Materials Disposition portion of that category accounts for $329 million, rising from $702 million to just more than $1.0 billion. Spending under the U.S. Surplus Fissile Materials Disposition category would rise from $701 million to $918 million; for Russian materials disposition, it would jump from $1 million to $113 million.

The United States previously had spearheaded a multinational effort to support a program under which Russia would build a plant to fabricate mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel—so called because it is a mix of plutonium and uranium oxides—out of surplus weapons plutonium. The MOX fuel then would have been used in Russian light-water reactors (LWRs). That effort stalled over financial, policy, and legal disputes, and Congress has not been providing new funding.

Meanwhile, Russia and the United States have been negotiating the terms of a different plan. That plan would be based on the use of fast-neutron reactors, which are capable of producing more plutonium than they consume, rather than LWRs. U.S. officials have said that one advantage of shifting to that approach is that, because it conforms more closely to Russia’s domestic energy plans, Moscow would be willing to pursue that route with less outside funding than it demanded for the LWR approach.

In November 2007, the two sides issued a statement saying they had reached agreement on the outlines of a revised plan. (See ACT, December 2007.) A key part of the agreement was that the Russian fast reactors would dispose of the weapons plutonium without creating new stocks of separated weapons-grade plutonium.

To put the plan in place, the two sides needed to negotiate and sign a protocol to amend a 2000 pact known as the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA). That process apparently still is not complete.

According to the Energy Department’s detailed budget justification document, the Russian and U.S. governments “have completed negotiations” on the protocol. The document said the protocol is “expected” to be signed “in early 2010.”

In Feb. 22 interview, a U.S. official said the Bush administration “put some steam” behind the negotiation effort but was not able to complete it. The Obama administration “re-energized” the effort when it took office and “made known at various levels that this was something we wanted to get done,” he said.

In the late fall of last year, the two sides reached a point at which they both said “the substantive issues are now closed,” the official said. He said they are now working on “conforming the language,” that is, making sure that the English and Russian versions say exactly the same thing.

The specific details of the monitoring and inspection arrangements, such as their “frequency and intensity,” will be in a separate document that has not yet been completed, he said.

As part of the new U.S.-Russian plan, the United States is to provide a total of $400 million for the Russian effort. The fiscal year 2011 budget request would provide $100 million of that amount. In a Feb. 26 e-mail to Arms Control Today, NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said, “We expect to request additional funds in future budgets based on the pace of plutonium disposition in Russia.” Both countries are planning to start disposition in 2018, but “either country may begin sooner if it chooses,” he said. According to current estimates, the disposition campaign is expected to take about 30 years in each country, he said.

The U.S. official said the United States expects to spend about $300 million of the $400 million in the development and construction years, in areas such as fuel development before the MOX fuel is loaded into Russian reactors, with the remainder being spread over the “period of confirmed disposition.”

The U.S. plutonium disposition effort is centered on the construction of a MOX fuel fabrication plant at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The 2011 funding request for construction of the plant itself would dip slightly from fiscal year 2010, from $504 million to $476 million, because of “the completion of many long-lead equipment procurements and facility design activities,” according to the budget document. However, funding increases for supporting facilities and activities more than make up for that decline.

Part of the increase comes in the request for the Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility, which was funded in a different part of the NNSA budget in fiscal year 2010. However, the facility, which would disassemble surplus nuclear weapons pits and convert their plutonium metal into an oxide form that can be fabricated into MOX fuel, also would receive a boost in funding from the fiscal year 2010 level.

GTRI Ascending

In another high-profile effort, the budget for the GTRI would rise from $334 million to $559 million.

That effort is at the heart of President Barack Obama’s pledge in his speech last April in Prague to “secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.” However, the administration’s budget request last year showed a decline in GTRI funding. In defending that budget on Capitol Hill, NNSA Administrator Thomas D’Agostino said it did not fully represent Obama’s four-year plan because budget preparation for fiscal year 2010 already was well under way when Obama took office and spelled out his goals to the NNSA. (See ACT, June 2009.)

One GTRI component that would receive a significant boost, from $94.2 million in fiscal year 2010 to $145.2 million in fiscal year 2011, is the effort to return Russian-origin highly enriched uranium (HEU) fuel to Russia from non-Russian research reactors. That effort had received $123.1 million in fiscal year 2009.

Removal of international radiological material would be funded at $45.0 million, an increase from the fiscal year 2010 level of $8.3 million and the fiscal year 2009 level of $21.7 million.

The sharpest GTRI increase would be for the effort to remove “gap nuclear material,” so called because it deals with nuclear material not covered by GTRI efforts focusing on Russian- and U.S.-origin nuclear material. Work on removing the gap material would be funded at $108.0 million for fiscal year 2011; it received $9.1 million in fiscal year 2010 and $5.0 million in fiscal year 2009.

In his Feb. 26 e-mail, LaVera said the increase is “to remove additional HEU and plutonium in FY2011 and to prepare for additional shipments” in fiscal year 2012. The increase reflects an approach that “takes work that had been planned in future years and redirects resources to complete it earlier than planned,” he said.

According to the budget document, the GTRI would get a further funding boost in fiscal 2012 and each of the following three years, receiving $600 million, $660 million, $987 million, and $1.1 billion.

CTR Increase

In the Department of Defense, funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program would rise by nearly $100 million, from $424 million in fiscal year 2010 to $523 million.

Much of the increase would go to a new effort called Global Nuclear Lockdown, for which the administration is requesting $74.5 million. According to a Defense Department budget document, the program would support Obama’s four-year Prague commitment in part by establishing regional Centers of Excellence for Nuclear Security in countries to be determined by the CTR program. That part of the effort would receive $30 million. The centers’ purpose would be “to assess equipment and manpower, provide material and security training, and demonstrate enhanced security procedures and processes,” the document says.