Nuclear terrorism is the ultimate preventable catastrophe. If highly enriched uranium and plutonium are adequately secured or eliminated, they cannot be stolen for use in a nuclear device. In 2011, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that "poorly secured stocks of [chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear materials] provide potential source material for terror attacks." Osama bin Laden may be dead, but the threat of nuclear terrorism remains.
President Barack Obama has been on the front lines of this fight, launching the first in a series of international nuclear security summits in 2010 to provide a global forum to support efforts to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years, strengthen global nuclear materials security, and prevent nuclear terrorism. Since April 2009, when the Obama administration began implementing the four-year goal, the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), home to the key programs tasked with securing and eliminating nuclear material at an accelerated rate, has removed more than 1,200 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and plutonium -- including all the highly enriched uranium from eight countries, most recently Mexico and Ukraine this year. In addition, the agency has completed security upgrades at 32 Russian buildings containing weapons-usable materials and downblended 2.9 metric tons of Russia's highly enriched uranium so that it could no longer be used in nuclear weapons or reactors. This is a remarkable return on a relatively limited investment.
The Obama administration has rightly identified nuclear terrorism as one of the greatest threats to US national security and rightly acknowledged that the job of preventing it is far from over. So why does the administration's 2013 budget request, released in February 2012, slash funding for core nuclear terrorism prevention programs?
Budget background. In 2011, the Obama administration requested a $244 million increase over the 2010 appropriated level for a total of $1.15 billion in order to enable the agency's Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account (specifically the Global Threat Reduction Initiative and the International Material Protection and Cooperation Program) to accelerate efforts to lock down and eliminate nuclear materials around the world. However, the House of Representatives did not support the increase. In fact, it notably reduced the request for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative by $113 million, forcing NNSA to delay by a year several planned removals of highly enriched uranium from countries like Vietnam and Hungary. The funding cut also forced NNSA to dial back the number of research reactors around the world that it had planned to convert to low enriched uranium, which can't be used in a nuclear weapon.
For this year, President Obama requested $508 million for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative -- $51 million less than its 2011 request. Still, the House balked once again, cutting the budget by $85 million (17 percent). Fortunately, the Senate, led by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, opposed these cuts, and the final version of the bill nearly fully funded the agency's essential nuclear and radiological material security programs.
The 2013 budget. The Obama administration's 2013 budget request significantly reduces the budgets for core nuclear material security programs, below even last year's enacted levels. The $466 million request for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative is a $34 million (7 percent) reduction. The $311 million request for the International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation program is a reduction of $261 million (46 percent), including a $171 million (65 percent) cut to the Second Line of Defense program, which installs radiation detectors and other equipment to ferret out illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction at border crossing, airports, and seaports across the globe.
Despite the reductions to core material security programs, NNSA officials have stated that the 2013 budget keeps the United States on track to meet the four-year goal of securing all of the planet's vulnerable nuclear materials, though the agency has yet to publically define how it plans to measure progress toward fulfilling this objective. Administration officials have justified the reduced request primarily on the grounds that the current fiscal environment is putting extreme pressure on their budgets. They have also argued that near-term budgets are likely to continue to decrease as key removals of highly enriched uranium around the world are completed and as attention shifts to securing nuclear material security agreements from heretofore-resistant countries.
But these explanations don't add up.
While the 2013 request for the vital Global Threat Reduction Initiative and the International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation program were cut by a combined $291 million, the request for the controversial mixed-oxide fuel program, which is also housed in the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account and aims to dispose of excess US weapons-grade plutonium, was ramped up by $229 million more than last year's level. The administration showered the program with additional cash despite the fact that it is plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays, and that the Energy Department has yet to receive firm commitments from any utility to use the fuel. If budgets are tight, why did this program get such a large increase?
Moreover, NNSA gave no indications that it was planning to significantly reduce the scope of its work. As of last year, the agency planned to convert 129 highly enriched uranium research reactors by the end of 2016; yet according to this year's budget, NNSA now plans to convert only 127 such reactors by 2017. In total, the request delays by three years the previously stated goal of converting or shutting down 200 research reactors around the world by 2022.
So underwhelming was the administration's request for core nuclear material security programs that both the Senate and House increased funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in their versions of the bill. Senate appropriators increased the request for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative by $73 million. The House, having cut the budget for this program just last year, actually increased the program by $34 million. That's right: After two years of major cuts, the House actually increased the budget.
The Senate bill also boosted funding for the International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation account by $57 million above the requested level, primarily to restore funding to the Second Line of Defense program. The Senate Appropriations Committee concluded that the proposed $171 million cut to these activities "would not be sufficient to sustain already deployed systems, retain expert personnel, and meet international obligations to deploy additional radiation detection systems."
Clearly, the Senate understands that nuclear material security efforts will not end simply because international commitments made at the 2010 and 2012 nuclear security summits are met or because the four-year deadline expires. If the White House understands this, it's tough to tell from their budget requests. In future years, the United States and its international partners should establish new initiatives, programs, and funding streams to strengthen the global nuclear security architecture and secure dangerous materials wherever they exist. Instead, the administration appears bent on scaling back funding for an agenda it nevertheless touts as its top national security priority.