For the second year in a row the Obama administration has slashed funding for a key program to keep America safe from the threat of nuclear terrorism. Meanwhile, funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s nuclear weapons programs continues to rise at an incredible rate.
As others have pointed out, the administration’s release today of its FY 2014 budget request for the Department of Defense and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was largely an exercise in political theater, as it completely ignores the budget caps mandated by sequestration. Nonetheless, the request is revealing in that it shows which defense programs the administration believes are a priority and those that it does not.
The administration requested $424.5 million for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI), a decrease of $76.5 million (or 15%) below the pre-sequester FY 2013 appropriated level. GTRI is housed within NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Non-Proliferation Account and reduces and protects vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials located at civilian sites worldwide. Since 2009, GTRI has removed more than 1,400 kilograms of HEU and plutonium, enough for dozens of nuclear weapons. Last week NNSA announced the removal of the last remaining HEU from the Czech Republic.
Yet beginning last year the administration began to significantly scale back funding for this vital program. This is especially puzzling given the emphasis the administration has (rightly) placed on keeping nuclear materials out of the hands of terrorists. As President Obama noted in a speech last December, “I continue to believe that nuclear terrorism remains one of the greatest threats to global security. That’s why working to prevent nuclear terrorism is going to remain one of my top national security priorities as long as I have the privilege of being President of the United States.”
As NNSA has yet to release detailed budget information for its programs, it is unclear which activities within GTRI have been scaled back. The summary budget documents released today also do not provide a justification for the cut to GTRI.
Last year, the administration’s attempt to slash GTRI met with stiff resistance from Congress. Both the Senate and House Appropriations Committees increased funding for the program in their respective versions of the FY 2013 Energy and Water Appropriations bills.
Elsewhere in the Defense Nuclear Non-Proliferation account, the budget request provides a slight increase for the Second Line of the Defense program, which installs radiation detectors and other equipment to ferret out illicit trafficking of weapons of mass destruction at border crossings, airports, and seaports across the globe. Recall that the administration’s FY 2013 budget request eviscerated the budget for this program pursuant to a strategic review.
The budget request also significantly reduces funding for the controversial Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program. This is good news. MOX, which aims to dispose of excess weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it with uranium and burning it in civilian reactors, has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays, and the Energy Department has yet to receive firm commitments from any utility to use the fuel. According to NNSA, “the administration will assess the feasibility of alternative plutonium disposition strategies, resulting in a slowdown of MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility construction in 2014.”
While funding for GTRI was reduced for the second year in a row, the administration’s budget request for NNSA nuclear weapons activities continues to explode. NNSA requested 7.87 billion for nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization programs, an increase of $311 million (or 4.1%) above the pre-sequester FY 2013 appropriated level. In reality, when accounting for the fact that NNSA moved $256 million in spending for nuclear counterterrorism and counterproliferation programs from weapons activities to defense nuclear nonproliferation, the increase actually exceeds 7%. This is an extraordinary plus-up given that most defense programs are either decreasing, flat-lining, or experiencing much slower rates of growth. It is also a testament to the President’s effort to make good on his pledge to significantly increase funding for nuclear modernization as part of his effort in 2010 to win Senate approval for New START.
Given that the FY 2014 budget request ignores sequestration, Congress must either act to obviate the defense spending reductions required by the Budget Control Act or make significant cuts below the budget request. Whatever the outcome, Congress must prioritize anti-nuclear terror programs, which address one of the most extreme and immediate threats to US security. As Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) put it last year, “While modernizing the nuclear weapons stockpile is important it cannot come at the expense of nonproliferation activities.”
Stay tuned for more information about the budget request in the coming days, including Laicie’s analysis of national defense spending, an assessment of the Pentagon’s request for new nuclear weapons delivery systems and missile defense, detailed funding charts for nuclear material security and nuclear weapons programs, and suggestions for where Congress might look for reductions within the bloated and unaffordable nuclear weapons budget.