In March of this year, US President Barack Obama told a group of campaign donors that “loose nukes” were the main thing keeping him up at night. This sentiment is consistent with his administration’s stated policy, which is to keep wayward nuclear weapons and radioactive material out of the hands of terrorists.
In fact, though, the administration is doing just the opposite, cutting money for nuclear nonproliferation programs, where even the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee wants to spend more. If the White House doesn’t reverse course, this could be a great setback for the cause it claims to embrace.
How is it that the administration has chosen to be stingier on nonproliferation than a Republican party typically more inclined to fund weapons than weapons reductions? In early 2014, as the administration was in the final stages of preparing its budget request for fiscal 2015, Pentagon officials objected to what they said was inadequate funding for the nuclear weapons programs overseen by the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz and acting NNSA Administrator Bruce Held stood their ground, defending the proposed funding level, so Pentagon officials then appealed to the White House. The nonproliferation coordinator on the National Security Council, Liz Sherwood-Randall, and the Office of Management and Budget director, Sylvia Burwell, sided with the Pentagon and directed the NNSA to increase the nuclear weapons account. In short, Moniz got rolled by Obama’s advisors.
With tight spending caps in place throughout the government and time running out to finalize the budget, Moniz and Held were forced to raid the nonproliferation accounts to beef up funding for nuclear weapons. As a result, core nonproliferation programs were cut by $248 million, or 18 percent, in the final budget numbers for fiscal year 2015.
In a media briefing in Washington on March 4, the day the budget was released, Moniz said to reporters, “Nuclear nonproliferation, I’m afraid, is not such a great story. It’s frankly disappointing that we have such a substantial reduction this year.”
Reaction. At a congressional hearing at the end of April, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California and chair of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, which funds the Energy Department, called NNSA officials on the carpet with these words:
“Too many threats remain to cut these [nonproliferation] funds so sharply. Significant stockpiles of highly enriched uranium exist in too many countries, and global inventories of plutonium are steadily rising.
More than 100 thefts involving nuclear and radioactive material are reported every year to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
… Secretary Moniz told me that national security funding was constrained and he had to make hard choices. And yet, NNSA was able to find an additional $534 million for nuclear weapons, and an additional $282 million for naval reactors.
Candidly, I don’t see hard choices being made in this budget request.
I would add that the increase to weapons and cuts to nonproliferation are inconsistent with the administration’s stated priorities.
This budget would cut programs that reduce the threat of nuclear terrorism while significantly increasing funding for nuclear weapons, contrary to the stated goal of reducing our reliance on nuclear weapons.”
Non-governmental organizations were also angry over the administration’s budget cuts. The Council for a Livable World, a Washington-based advocacy organization, circulated a sign-on letter to President Obama expressing “our serious concern about the FY 2015 budget request for vital nuclear material security and nonproliferation programs.” More than 100 nonproliferation experts and leaders joined the letter.
The Council for a Livable World went on to organize a citizens’ petition to the president expressing “our concern about your budget request, which makes disturbingly deep cuts to vital nuclear security and nonproliferation programs.” The online petition can be signed here.
Republican action. In May, as Congress worked on its version of the fiscal 2015 budget, the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee increased funding for two key nuclear nonproliferation programs in its draft military spending bill. It raised funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) by $80 million, or 24 percent above the White House request. The GTRI’s goal is “to reduce and protect vulnerable nuclear and radiological material located at civilian sites worldwide.” The defense committee also boosted the budget for the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development—which develops technical capabilities to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation and illicit nuclear material trafficking—by $70 million, or 19 percent above President Obama’s request. Both programs are run by the NNSA in the Energy Department.
In both cases, the budget increases were strongly championed by the panel’s Democrats and accepted by Republicans. They were adopted by the full House of Representatives on May 22. Several other congressional committees will also vote on these budgets, but the House Armed Services Committee is the most conservative panel, so these additional funds are likely to be part the final budget numbers Congress sends to the administration.
What to do. Congress is likely to increase nonproliferation spending above the Obama request, but even with Republican support, it is unlikely to restore all of the administration’s cuts because of the severe budget pressures. The various House and Senate committees will finish their work on the Energy Department budget either in September or after the mid-term elections in a lame-duck session in November or December.
At the same time, the administration will begin drafting its budget request for fiscal year 2016. The initial budget will be put together at the Energy Department this summer and be delivered to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget in early September. A series of back-and-forth negotiations between Energy and the Office of Management and Budget will continue through early February 2015, when the final budget request is delivered to Congress. The Pentagon will again have an opportunity to review the draft Energy Department-NNSA nuclear weapons accounts.
Beyond signing the online petition to President Obama, there are other ways citizens can work to change the status quo. A useful start would be to contact their members of Congress, especially those on the House and Senate Armed Services Subcommittees on Strategic Forces and the House and Senate Appropriations Subcommittees on Energy and Water. (A list of committee members and their addresses can be found here. In addition, citizens should consider directly writing to Liz Sherwood-Randall, the White House coordinator for defense policy, countering weapons of mass destruction and arms control, who is its chief point person on nonproliferation. They should ask her not to use money from nonproliferation programs to pay for the increasingly expensive nuclear weapons programs as she reviews the Energy Department-NNSA budget for fiscal 2016. (Sherwood-Randall can be reached at National Security Council, 1650 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Room 361, Washington, DC 20504.)
If Obama really wants to lower the danger of loose nukes, as he says he does, his administration will have to restore nonproliferation funding. Both experts and ordinary voters can help make this happen by raising their voices.
David Culp, who wrote this article, is a legislative representative for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby organization.