What is nuclear security worth in 2011?

If the car bomb in Times Square contained just one of the tens of thousands of radioactive sources that exist in the U.S. and it had successfully detonated, this American landmark would be uninhabitable for months or years to come. And, if the attack were with an improvised nuclear device instead, a large portion of Manhattan would have been destroyed. We were lucky in many ways that day, but these are real threats posed by ever-bolder terrorists, and our luck might not last forever. That is why it is essential for Congress to join with the Obama administration to make sure that terrorists cannot get their hands on these dangerous materials.

Members of Congress have good reason to support domestic projects in the face of a sluggish economy, but they also have a solemn duty to keep America safe.

Thankfully, the momentum to prevent such a catastrophic disaster has been building in Washington, D.C., and in capitals across the world. In April of this year, for the first time ever, 47 world leaders came together at the Nuclear Security Summit and agreed that nuclear terrorism is “one of the most challenging threats to international security.” They also agreed to do something about it, including endorsing the U.S. goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material in four years.

But tackling this threat will take real money–more than we have spent to date–and continued political commitment. The linchpin in these international nuclear security efforts is the United States, and our key nuclear security programs need strong congressional support. The president has requested a $320 million increase for nuclear security activities in the fiscal year 2011 budget, and Congress will need to act on that request to ensure nuclear materials stay out of the hands of terrorists.

However, although the goal of securing these dangerous materials received an unprecedented bipartisan standing ovation at this year’s State of the Union, hurdles have begun to crop up in the Hill’s budget considerations. It is unnerving to consider that pressures posed by the 2010 congressional elections might potentially lead to compromises in the nuclear security funding–funding that the administration proposed to make Americans safer.

One significant challenge is whether to reduce some of the nuclear security funding to focus on domestic projects in home districts. Members of Congress have good reason to support domestic projects in the face of a sluggish economy, but they also have a solemn duty to keep America safe. A nuclear terrorist attack anywhere in the world would have a ruinous impact on the U.S. and global economy. And any response to a successful attack will cost billions, dwarfing the proposed budgets for preventing it. This year, U.S. nuclear security spending represents about one-third of 1 percent of total defense spending. That’s why funding nuclear security today is not only a good bargain for national security, but it is also an investment in a strong and growing economy.

In addition, the intelligence community continues to report that Al Qaeda is seeking weapons of mass destruction to use against the U.S. and our allies, and Osama bin Laden has stated clearly that he views it his “religious duty” to obtain and use nuclear weapons against Americans.

Combine these consistent intelligence reports with the fact that not all nuclear materials are secured to a global “gold standard.” And when you add it all up, the result is clear: Failure to support the fiscal 2011 budget on nuclear security is an extremely dangerous gamble with our national security. It is a gamble Congress should not take.

Editor’s note: Alexandra Toma and Kenneth Luongo, co-chairpersons of the Fissile Materials Working Group, wrote this column. Toma is program director at the Connect U.S. Fund, and Luongo is president of the Partnership for Global Security.

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