On June 15 the House Appropriations Committee marked up the Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill.
The Committee appropriated $2.086 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account, a reduction of $463 million below the FY 2012 request of $2.549 billion. The Committee also rescinded an additional $30 million of prior-year unobligated balances from the account. For a detailed breakdown of the appropriation, see our analysis here.
For now I want to focus on the Committee’s cut to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the key program in the effort to lock down and eliminate nuclear materials around the world at an accelerated rate. The House bill reduces the administration’s FY 2012 request by $120 million. This cut comes on the heels of a $123 million cut to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in the final FY 2011 Continuing Resolution passed by Congress in April.
Given the low budget ceiling it was given to work with, the Committee did it’s best to protect vital nuclear material removal and nonproliferation efforts. However, the FY 2012 bill cuts $70 million (nearly 50% of the request) from the Global Threat Reduction Initiative’s Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Reactor Conversion program and $50 million from domestic radiological protection activities.
By way of background, the Highly Enriched Uranium Reactor Conversion program supports the conversion of domestic and international research reactors and medical isotope production facilities that use HEU to low enriched uranium (LEU). Dozens of reactors worldwide are still powered by HEU, many of which are not adequately secured. Unlike HEU, LEU cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb.
The reactor conversion program supports three key activities…
- HEU reactor conversions: To date the Global Threat Reduction Initiative has verified the shutdown of 76 HEU reactors, including five reactors in Russia. The National Nuclear Security Administration plans to shut down a total of 200 research reactors by 2022.
- Medical isotope production without the use of HEU: Many reactors around the world use HEU to produce Molybdenum-99, a critical medical isotope used to examine how organs such as hearts, lungs, and kidneys function. Molybdenum-99 can also be produced using LEU, which would reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. The Global Threat Reduction Initiative is providing support to the private sector to accelerate the establishment of a reliable domestic production capability for Molybdenum-99. It is also assisting South Africa in its efforts to begin exporting Molybdenum-99 isotopes using LEU.
- New LEU fuel development: The Global Threat Reduction Initiative is continuing efforts required to fabricate the new high-density LEU fuel needed to convert the 27 HEU research reactors around the world that cannot convert with existing LEU fuel. Collectively these reactors use approximately 675 kilograms of HEU annually, enough to make 27 nuclear weapons.
The National Nuclear Security Administration requested $148.3 million for Highly Enriched Uranium Reactor Conversion in FY 2012, an increase of $29.3 million above the FY 2011 request.
The Committee justified its $70 million cut to this program by noting that the request “for the long-term goals to convert foreign reactors reflects an understanding that progress relies heavily on international cooperation, which is not yet assured.” In particular, the Committee noted that only three out of a total of 71 Russian research reactors have been shut down.
Contrary to the Committee’s report, however, the vast majority of the request for reactor conversion in FY 2012 is not aimed at Russia, but rather to convert reactors in other countries, accelerate the establishment of a reliable domestic production capability for Molybdenum-99 using LEU, and develop new high-density LEU fuel. In fact, according to information provided to Congress by the National Nuclear Security Administration, only $10 million, or 7%, of the FY 2012 request for reactor conversion is for Russian reactors.
The National Nuclear Security Administration believes that the $70 million cut would delay the essential effort to eliminate the use of HEU in civilian applications in the following ways:
- The House cut would delay reactor conversions currently underway in Poland, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ghana, and Nigeria. The cut would also prevent the conversion of any new reactors in FY 2012 (the Global Threat Reduction Initiative had planned to convert an additional five reactors this year). Furthermore, the cut would delay the significant progress that has been made with Russia on the conversion of additional reactors there.
- The House cut would delay the establishment of a domestic medical isotope production capability using LEU by two years to 2017 and delay the production of the new LEU fuel and the conversion of the reactors that need this fuel by three years.
- Delays in reactor conversions would also delay the final removal of vulnerable HEU from numerous countries, since HEU cannot be removed until the reactor has been converted to use LEU and the HEU is removed from the reactor core.
- As National Nuclear Security Administration officials have suggested publically, due to the $123 million cut to the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in FY 2011, money originally budgeted for reactor conversion, Molybdenum-99 conversion, and radiological security will be used to keep the high-level commitments to remove HEU from countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, and Mexico on track in the lead up to the next Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul in March 2012.
The Highly Enriched Uranium Reactor Conversion program is a critical threat reduction activity to reduce the threats of nuclear terrorism. Underfunding this program, which the House has now done for two years in a row, undermines U.S. national security.