Deconstructing U.S. funding for nuclear material security

By Fissile Materials Working Group | April 8, 2010

One year ago, President Barack Obama made a bold pledge to “secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years.” His immediate follow-through, however, has been wanting. For instance, his fiscal year 2010 budget request to meet this goal was actually $200 million less than what the Bush administration allocated a year earlier for securing nuclear material abroad. In fact, the administration still hasn’t defined what it actually considers vulnerable nuclear material. So, in essence, Obama has lost a full calendar year in his four-year quest.

It’s also disappointing that the requested State Department budget to combat WMD proliferation and promote global threat reduction is down more than $5 million–including a substantial $18 million cut in the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund.”

He has done somewhat better lately. His fiscal year 2011 budget request for securing fissile material increased by $320 million over the 2010 budget, and it forecasts growth in the coming years for key programs run by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Ditto for spending in the other agencies that handle nuclear security–in particular the Defense Department and Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program.

But even this budget request isn’t adequate to meet Obama’s ambitious goal. Among all of these agencies, there is only one new initiative–CTR’s $74 million Global Nuclear Lockdown Program. (The rest of the larger nuclear security budget mainly accelerates existing activities without expanding their scope.) And the only new thing about the Global Nuclear Lockdown Program is a $30 million request to create Nuclear Security Centers of Excellence. Plus, while the first of centers, if approved, will likely be outside the former Soviet Union, most of the remaining $44 million is slated for activities inside Russia that will mostly supplement existing NNSA and CTR programs there.

Two NNSA programs will carry out the bulk of the president’s task: the International Nuclear Materials and Protection Cooperation Program (INMPC) and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI). In the INMPC budget, the biggest increase ($34 million) is to continue security upgrades at Russian nuclear weapon-related facilities, a mission that the Energy Department has been engaged in since 1994. In the GTRI budget, the biggest increase ($211 million) is for nuclear material removal. This is extremely important work, but it doesn’t meet the president’s “global” pledge since some of the countries targeted, while certainly possessing dangerous material, don’t represent the world’s highest priority nuclear dangers.

It’s also disappointing that the requested State Department budget to combat WMD proliferation and promote global threat reduction is down more than $5 million–including a substantial $18 million cut in the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund. In part, the decrease can be explained by the fact that until 2010 the fund was the only U.S. nonproliferation program that could spend its budget as circumstances dictated without receiving pre-approval from Congress. (Congress has now granted limited discretionary authority to a number of threat-reduction programs.) But State is a valuable partner to NNSA and Defense that, at the very least, should be funded at 2009 levels, which would require a $34 million increase.

Additionally, the NNSA budget documents don’t make clear that the country’s radiological-protection budget has been sacrificed in recent years. This support reduction is hidden in the budget and requires analyzing past years’ budgets as well as past and present out-year (i.e., fiscal years 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015) spending projections. Such an analysis, however, reveals that radiological-protection spending has been reduced each year since 2009 even though it spikes in the out years seemingly to compensate for its lower priority now. The radiological-removal budget is boosted in the fiscal year 2011 budget request (in part to compensate for a congressional reduction in the 2010 budget), but it could be higher given the plethora of domestic and international radiological sources and the higher likelihood of terrorists using a dirty bomb rather than constructing and delivering a nuclear weapon.

Despite all of these reductions, the House Appropriations Energy and Water Subcommittee Vice Chairman Ed Pastor and ranking member Rodney Frelinghuysen have questioned the NNSA budget increase. This isn’t an idle challenge in a tough budget year, especially since their subcommittee likely will be the first House body to act on the request, setting the tone for all else to come.

How should the administration proceed with what could be an adversarial Congress? I believe it should be more aggressive and more ambitious. Specifically, it should correct the 2010 budget shortfalls by proposing increases in a supplemental appropriations request of $115 million. At the very least, the GTRI’s funding should be restored to its fiscal year 2009 level of $395 million (an addition of $62 million). Similarly, the INMPC budget should be closer to $625 million (an increase of about $53 million) to allow for additional activities outside of Russia.

Further, the congressional limit on nuclear security spending in Russia and the former Soviet states beginning in fiscal year 2012 must be modified so that the programs funded by this spending can continue–and not just because the job won’t have been completed by 2012. They must proceed also because security equipment installed in the former Soviet Union in the early and mid-1990s is nearing the end of its life expectancy and is becoming obsolete. Therefore, improvements on the original security measures might be required.

Finally, Obama should use his April Nuclear Security Summit and the joint June meeting of the Group of Eight and Group of Twenty to generate support for a global fund for WMD security totaling around $3 billion per year over the next decade. Such a fund would underscore the need for continued multilateral involvement in the nuclear security area and make clear to recipient nations that there’s a renewable WMD security investment fund that they can utilize.

At the end of the day the president’s four-year goal is unlikely to be met in the time frame he has endorsed for budgetary, bureaucratic, and diplomatic reasons. Thus, he must find the political will for nuclear material security that matches his rhetoric on the topic.

Editor’s note: Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security, wrote this column.

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