Don’t Skimp on Funding to Prevent Nuclear Terrorism

Volume 2, Issue 3, March 2, 2011

There is an overwhelming, bipartisan consensus among America’s leaders that nuclear terrorism is one of the most dangerous threats facing the United States and the world today. Unfortunately, the new leadership of the House of Representatives has lumped federal programs designed to prevent this danger in with the rest of its targets for budget cuts, proposing to slash their funding by over 20 percent.  This is a big mistake, and the Senate and the White House should work aggressively to ensure that these cuts are not turned into law.

Leaders of both parties and the military agree on the magnitude of this issue. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said, “Every senior leader, when you’re asked what keeps you awake at night, it’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.” President Barack Obama has called the prospect of nuclear terrorism “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” And according to former President George W. Bush, “The biggest threat facing this country is weapons of mass destruction in the hands of a terrorist network.”

In testimony last month, General James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, stated that “the time when only a few states had access to the most dangerous technologies is well past… Some terror groups remain interested in acquiring CBRN [chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear] materials and threaten to use them. Poorly secured stocks of CBRN provide potential source material for terror attacks.”

In its final report, the bipartisan Commission on the Prevention of WMD Proliferation and Terrorism warned that al-Qaeda is “actively intent on conducting a nuclear attack against the United States” and that it has been seeking nuclear weapons-usable material ever since the 1990s. “It is therefore imperative,” the commission argued, “that authorities secure nuclear weapons and materials at their source.”

According to the International Panel on Fissile Materials, the global stockpile of highly enriched uranium (HEU) in 2010 was roughly 1,475 tons, or enough to make more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. Likewise, the panel estimates the global stockpile of separated plutonium to be about 485 tons. The quality of security over these materials is uneven, varying widely across countries and regions. The sheer quantity of materials explains why a concerted effort is required to make nuclear security a major international priority.

Nuclear Security and the Budget

The United States has a number of active programs aimed at securing dangerous nuclear materials around the world. In its initial request for fiscal year (FY) 2011, the Obama administration asked for significant increases for these programs. These increases were designed to help achieve the president’s goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide within four years.

However, Congress has yet to approve a final budget for FY 2011. Instead, before adjourning at the end of 2010, Congress passed a continuing resolution (CR) which is currently funding all government agencies (with a few exceptions) at FY 2010 levels. The current CR will expire on March 4. An additional two-week CR intended to give the two parties more time to reach an agreement has passed the House and looks to be headed for imminent passage in the Senate, but it will not solve the larger issue.

On February 19, the House of Representatives voted 235-189 along party lines to pass a CR through the rest of FY 2011, which ends on September 30. The House’s bill would cut spending by over $60 billion, slashing programs across a wide range of government agencies. Most notably, the nuclear nonproliferation account in the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) would lose a full 22.4 percent from Obama’s FY 2011 request, going from $2.687 billion to $2.085 billion.

U.S. Programs Are Doing Vital Work to Secure Nuclear Materials

The U.S. government has already taken a number of important steps to improve nuclear material security around the world. The NNSA’s nuclear nonproliferation programs have been particularly active in this effort, working to remove fissile materials from countries, conduct security upgrades at nuclear facilities, convert reactors to use low enriched uranium (LEU) instead of highly enriched uranium (HEU), and more. In recent years, the NNSA has:

  • Removed a cumulative total of 2,852 kilograms of HEU and plutonium, and shut down or converted 72 research reactors from using HEU fuel to LEU fuel.
    • Secured more than 10 tons of HEU and three tons of plutonium in Kazakhstan in November 2010 – enough material to make 775 nuclear weapons.
      • Completed security upgrades at 73 nuclear warhead sites and 34 nuclear material sites in Russia and the former Soviet Union.

        According to a spokesman, the NNSA has helped to complete the removal of “all HEU material” from a total of 19 countries, including Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Colombia, Denmark, Greece, Latvia, Libya, the Philippines, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, and Turkey.

        Furthermore, the NNSA says it is “working with 16 additional countries to remove the last of their material,” including Argentina, Austria, Belarus, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, the Netherlands, Poland, South Africa, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

        This extensive plan of action demonstrates how shortsighted it would be for Congress to fail to meet President Obama’s proposed increase for NNSA nonproliferation spending for the remainder of FY 2011. We are fortunate that a sizable number of countries have pledged to give up their stockpiles of fissile materials. We must not find ourselves in a position where we are unable to follow through in helping to complete the removals simply due to a lack of resources.

        Nonproliferation Spending is Security Spending

        Much of the broader discussion about this year’s budget has focused on the division between security and non-security related spending. Generally speaking, Congress’ approach has been to keep defense and security-related cuts to a minimum, while focusing most of its reductions on domestic “non-discretionary” spending. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of this method, it is clear that the proposed cuts to the NNSA’s nonproliferation budget are out of step with this approach. Simply put, programs designed to prevent nuclear terrorism by securing nuclear materials around the world directly contribute to America’s national security. The fact that these programs are located within the Department of Energy rather than the Department of Defense does not change that reality.

        If the House’s proposed CR becomes law, and President Obama’s request is not met, the United States will run the risk of having to pay much more to respond to an attack later than we would pay now to prevent the attack in the first place. Such short-term thinking would truly be penny-wise and pound-foolish.


        --ROB GOLAN-VILELLA, ACA Scoville Fellow