02/11/2011 - 05:34

Congress's nuclear terrorism shortfall

Fissile Materials Working Group

Fissile Materials Working Group

The Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG) brings together the experience of leading nonproliferation experts and nongovernmental organizations to...

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The US National Security Strategy, released by the White House in May 2010, states that "there is no greater threat to the American people than weapons of mass destruction, particularly the danger posed by the pursuit of nuclear weapons by violent extremists and their proliferation to additional states." This is why the Obama administration is in the midst of an international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world in four years. Republicans and Democrats alike have voiced support for limiting access to vulnerable nuclear materials to prevent nuclear terrorism. Yet the US programs charged with securing fissile materials and thwarting terrorists' efforts to acquire them are among the victims of this year's federal budget fights.

Critically important nuclear material security programs are facing significant budget shortfalls because Congress chose to extend the fiscal year (FY) 2010 funding levels through March 4, 2011, with a continuing resolution, rather than passing FY 2011 appropriation bills. Consequently, an additional $320 million over the FY 2010 level was not appropriated -- despite being authorized by lawmakers in the National Defense Authorization Act. Without appropriated budgets commensurate to program agendas, efforts to improve global nuclear material security will stall.

The coming weeks offer a key opportunity to get these programs back on track. The Republican House leadership plans to introduce a bill the week of February 14 to fund the federal government through the end of the current fiscal year. The additional $320 million should be included in the final bill. If this does not happen, the National Nuclear Security Administration's Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) will be the biggest loser. Included in the $320 million is a $210 million increase that would allow GTRI to accelerate global nuclear and radiological material removals as part of the four-year effort. While the continuing resolution does not specify line-item funding levels, maintaining GTRI's FY 2010 funding level would leave it with $333 million to execute a $559 million agenda that includes completing critical conversion, removal, and protection activities in Russia, Kazakhstan, South Africa, and Mexico. However, NNSA does have the authority to reallocate money from other nonproliferation program areas to GTRI. A comparison of the FY 2011 budget request with the FY 2010 appropriations reveals that nearly $150 million in reductions had been scheduled for other NNSA nonproliferation programs in FY 2011. But, even if all of this funding was reallocated to GTRI -- which is very unlikely—the program would be short on funds in FY 2011 if the FY 2010 levels are extended. (For more on the FY 2011 budget, see Partnership for Global Security's analysis.)

It is important to note that the Obama administration and Congress carved out an additional $624 million in nuclear-related funds over the FY 2011 request in the current continuing resolution. This $624 million anomaly for the nuclear weapons complex was provided as part of a deal to win Republican votes to approve New START.

However, no such exception was made for nonproliferation programs, despite the fact that the administration has clearly identified preventing nuclear terrorism as a top national security priority and received bipartisan support for this stance. Efforts should be made to ensure that the final funding bill better reflects the urgency and importance that government officials place on improving global nuclear material security to prevent nuclear terrorism. Allowing the current nonproliferation shortfalls to continue past March 4 or bleed into the 2012 fiscal year appropriation process -- which will start on February 14 with the release of the president's budget proposal for that year -- would jeopardize both US national security objectives and global nuclear material security.

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Editor's note: Michelle Marchesano wrote this column. Marchesano is a senior budget and policy analyst at the Partnership for Global Security, where she focuses on tracking and analyzing the budgets of US international weapons of mass destruction security programs, the evolution of fissile material security policies, and the impacts of globalization on nuclear nonproliferation.

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