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 Spending Slated to Rise

Robert Golan-Vilella and Daniel Horner

President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget request would increase funding for nonproliferation programs in the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) by roughly 20 percent over current spending levels, but represents a modest decrease from the administration’s request for the same programs a year ago.

Under the proposed budget, released Feb. 14, two of the largest increases would go to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and the Fissile Materials Disposition program. The former is designed to reduce and secure vulnerable nuclear materials at civilian sites around the world; the latter focuses principally on disposition of surplus weapons-grade fissile materials in the United States. The portion of the request related to disposition activities in Russia dropped significantly from the fiscal year 2011 request.

Because Congress did not approve fiscal year 2011 funding for most U.S. government agencies before last Sept. 30, the end of fiscal year 2010, the federal government is now operating under a continuing resolution (CR), which will fund the government through March. With very few exceptions, the CR funds government programs at the level of their fiscal year 2010 congressional appropriations. Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2011 had called for significant increases for a number of programs designed to improve nuclear security around the world. (See ACT, March 2010.)

The NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation category, which includes both the GTRI and the materials disposition program, would see its spending go from $2.13 billion to $2.55 billion. That represents an increase of 20 percent from current spending levels, but a decrease of 5.1 percent from Obama’s fiscal year 2011 request of $2.69 billion. Funding for the GTRI would follow the same pattern: after receiving $334 million in fiscal year 2010, Obama proposed to increase that to $508 million for fiscal year 2012—a 52 percent rise, but less than the $559 million that he requested last year.

The GTRI is one of the principal contributing programs to the Obama administration’s goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide within four years. (See ACT, May 2009.) From the program’s inception through September 2010, the GTRI removed a cumulative total of 2,852 kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium and shut down or converted 72 HEU research reactors, according to the NNSA’s detailed “budget justification” document.

In a Feb. 14 press statement, the NNSA said that Obama’s budget request “provides the resources required to implement the President’s commitment to secure vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years.” The request’s future-year projections call for the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation category to receive a total of $14.2 billion over the next five years, with the annual appropriation rising gradually each year to reach just over $3 billion in fiscal year 2016. Funding for the GTRI in that year would be $740 million under the administration’s projection.

One of the GTRI’s high-profile activities is its ongoing effort to remove fresh HEU from Belarus and Ukraine. These two former Soviet countries have said they will be rid of the material by the time of the nuclear security summit planned for 2012 in Seoul. (See ACT, January/February 2011.) During a Feb. 14 conference call with reporters, NNSA officials said they were confident that the budget request provides sufficient funding to meet that schedule.

Following a Feb. 15 meeting of the U.S.-Ukraine Strategic Partnership Commission, the Department of State’s press office said Ukraine had reiterated its commitment to meet that timetable and that the United States “reconfirmed its commitment to provide necessary technical and financial assistance valued at approximately $50 million by the time of the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit as part of this effort.”

In a Feb. 15 e-mail to Arms Control Today following up on the conference call, NNSA spokesman Damien LaVera said that “all HEU material has now been removed” from 19 countries (Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Greece, Latvia, Libya, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey). He added that the NNSA is working with 16 other countries (Argentina, Austria, Belarus, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam) “to remove the last of their material.”

Fissile Material Disposition

As with the GTRI and the broader Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account, the proposed budget for fissile materials disposition is significantly higher than its fiscal year 2010 appropriation, but slightly lower than Obama’s fiscal year 2011 request. From $702 million in fiscal year 2010, funding for the disposition program is slated to rise to $890 million in fiscal year 2012; the request for fiscal year 2011 was $1.03 billion.

The bulk of the program is devoted to carrying out a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia that commits each side to dispose of at least 34 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium. The agreement originally was signed in 2000, but the effort stalled over financial, policy, and legal disputes. During the April 2010 nuclear security summit in Washington, the two sides signed a protocol that amended and updated the accord. (See ACT, May 2010.) According to a State Department statement at the time of the protocol’s signing, the combined 68 metric tons of plutonium represents enough material to make approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons.

Under the terms of the protocol, Washington and Moscow aim to begin disposition—loading reactors with fuel made with the surplus weapons plutonium—in 2018. The United States currently is constructing three facilities at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. The first is a Mixed-Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility, which will fabricate plutonium oxide into MOX fuel for use in domestic reactors; the other two facilities will perform supporting roles. Savannah River is scheduled to begin producing MOX fuel in October 2016, the NNSA’s budget document said.

The administration is requesting $579 million for construction work on the three facilities for fiscal year 2012, with $385 million going to the MOX fuel-fabrication plant.

According to the NNSA budget document, that project “has had continued difficulty identifying suppliers and subcontractors with the ability and experience to fabricate and install equipment to the requirements of [the] Nuclear Quality Assurance (NQA)-1 standard for nuclear work.” This shortage “has in turn resulted in a lack of competition for the work and higher than expected bids as the inexperienced suppliers are uncertain how much effort is required to meet NQA-1 requirements,” the document said. In some cases, Shaw AREVA MOX Services, the main contractor that the Energy Department has hired to build the facility, has done some of the work itself rather than assigning it to subcontractors, the NNSA said. Another hurdle is that the contractor “is also experiencing significantly greater than expected turnover of experienced personnel due to the expansion of the U.S. commercial nuclear industry,” the NNSA said, adding that “finding experienced replacements has become difficult and expensive.”

The Obama administration’s future-year projections call for roughly $1 billion to be spent on the disposition program in each of the four years following fiscal year 2012. Approximately 48 percent of that money is scheduled to go toward constructing the new facilities.

In anticipation of last year’s signing of the disposition protocol with Russia, the fiscal year 2011 request for work on Russian disposition rose to $113 million (the fiscal year 2010 appropriation had been $1 million), but the fiscal year 2012 request is only $10.2 million. According to the NNSA budget document, the sharp drop “reflects the decision to wait until the United States and Russia have agreed on detailed milestones” for progress in the work that U.S. funds would support. During the Feb. 14 conference call, Anne Harrington, the NNSA deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation, said the agency is “not going to request [money for that work] from Congress until we know we actually have something to apply it against.”

In a Feb. 18 interview, a U.S. official said the United States had given Russia a document proposing a draft set of milestones for Russia’s consideration, but had not yet received a response. The Russian response is taking “longer than the U.S. would have hoped,” but there appears to be “no damage to Russia’s program from the delay,” he said. It “seems clear” that Russia does not see a “programmatic need” to move more rapidly, he said. “People, over time, have realized that this is not a program that’s going to rush itself forward,” he commented.

CTR to Rise, Focus on Biothreats

At the Department of Defense, funding for the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program is slated to increase by approximately 20 percent from current spending levels, from $424 million to $508 million. Obama’s request last year called for $523 million to be spent. The CTR program is designed to secure and eliminate weapons of mass destruction and their related materials, particularly in the states of the former Soviet Union.

Within the CTR account, the lion’s share of the proposed increase would go to the Cooperative Biological Engagement program. Formerly known as Biological Threat Reduction, this program works to prevent dangerous pathogens from being used against the United States or its allies by state or nonstate actors, the CTR’s detailed budget document said. Under the 2012 budget request, this program’s funding would rise 53 percent, from $169 million in fiscal year 2010 to $260 million. At this level, the biological engagement program would consume just over half the CTR budget.

The other major programs in the CTR account would see their funding stay generally consistent with current levels, although some would decrease significantly compared to Obama’s fiscal year 2011 request. Most notable in this category is the Global Nuclear Security program, which “renames and consolidates all activities related to nuclear warhead and weapons-grade nuclear material security within selected countries,” according to the CTR’s budget document. Last year, Obama requested a 39 percent increase for this category, from $119 million in fiscal year 2010 to $164 million in fiscal year 2011. This year’s request would eliminate this proposed increase, calling for $121 million to be spent.