by Kingston Reif
“We know there is nearly 2,000 metric tons of this [nuclear] material spread across hundreds of sites in 25 countries, and we know much of it is not effectively secured. We know that terrorists would only need enough highly enriched uranium to fit into a 5-pound bag of sugar or an amount of plutonium the size of a grapefruit.”
Former Senator Sam Nunn, Jan. 8, 2014In its Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the Obama administration made it resoundingly clear that it is in a full-on retreat from accelerating the security of nuclear and radiological materials around the globe.
This decision is difficult to fathom, given that as recently as this week the President stated that the number one thing that keeps him up at night is “loose nukes.” Likewise the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review identified nuclear terrorism as “today’s most immediate and extreme danger.”
For the third year in a row the NNSA budget submission continues a disturbing trend of funding nuclear weapons and other programs at the expense of core nuclear and radiological material security programs. This year, the tradeoff is starker than it has ever been.
The request slashes nearly eighteen percent compared to the FY 2014 enacted level from core threat reduction and nonproliferation programs such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and the International Materials Protection and Cooperation (IMPC) program while increasing weapons funding nearly seven percent (including a massive 20 percent increase for the unnecessary, over budget, and behind schedule B61 mod 12 life extension program). The request also increases funding for NNSA’s Naval Reactors program by nearly 26 percent.
Roughly half of the funding cut to the Defense Nuclear Non-Proliferation account (or approximately $250 million) came out of core programs, while the other half was to the controversial Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program in South Carolina.
GTRI reduces and protects vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials located at civilian sites worldwide. Since 2009, GTRI, among many other accomplishments, has removed all of the highly enriched uranium from 12 countries, including Ukraine.
The IMPC program works with Russia and other countries to secure and eliminate vulnerable nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material and to deter and detect illicit smuggling of nuclear material. These programs are the tip of the spear in U.S. efforts to prevent dangerous nuclear and radiological materials from falling into the hands of terrorists.
The budget request also cuts funding for research and development activities to detect and analyze foreign nuclear weapons development programs.
The administration now faces the prospect of arriving at the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands later this month having cratered its material security budget and failed to ratify the 2005 Amendment to the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM) and the 2005 International Convention on the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism.
The budget in particular sends the signal that the administration thinks it can rest on the important nuclear security achievements it has made to date. Yet while important gains have been made on the President’s effort to secure the most vulnerable nuclear materials, much work remains unfinished.
As Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) put it last year: More than a thousand kilograms of highly enriched uranium are sitting in a handful of countries. Large quantities of plutonium are still at risk, and over a hundred reactors still need to be converted to low enriched uranium. Further, thousands of unused radiological sources here at home are insecure and can be used for dirty bombs. And there are still international borders vulnerable to nuclear and radiological smuggling.
If the White House has a strategy to continue to accelerate the momentum it generated during its first term, it’s certainly not evident from its budget request.
The summary budget documents released by NNSA to date provide a number of explanations for the funding decrease to core nonproliferation programs, ranging from the constrained budget environment to the completion of previously planned goals and milestones to uncertainty over nuclear nonproliferation activities in Russia due to ongoing negotiations to replace the now defunct Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) umbrella agreement.
But in his comments announcing the budget release early this week, Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz made it clear that the main reason for the cuts was the need to fund higher NNSA priorities. Nonproliferation “is not such a great story to be honest,” he said. “It’s frankly disappointing. We have a substantial reduction this year but this is what happens with the capped budget and the very tough choices we had to make.”
Moniz is right that the budget environment has been constrained. But slashing relatively low-cost and effective threat reduction programs such as GTRI is a gross misallocation of resources. Budget cuts over the past two years have already played a significant role in delaying key priorities, such as converting or shutting down dozens of reactors around the world that still use highly enriched uranium and securing buildings and facilities that house dangerous nuclear and radiological materials. Additional delays to these and other goals are likely in store this year.
As the chart below indicates, the fiscal 2015 request is nearly $1 billion less for GTRI and the IMPC programs than the funding level projected by the administration three years ago.
The cuts to these programs are even roughly $110 million less than the projection for FY 2015 in last year’s budget request, which is significant because last year’s request also made major material security cuts. Moreover, NNSA only attributes about a quarter of the cut to the IMPC program to the delay in negotiating new implementing language with Russia to replace the old CTR umbrella agreement – which, despite the recent downturn in relations, could still be resolved sooner rather than later.
In addition to the cuts to core nonproliferation programs outlined above, the budget request also slashes funding for the deeply flawed and unaffordable Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel program in South Carolina, which aims to dispose of excess weapons-grade plutonium by mixing it with uranium and burning it in civilian reactors. The FY 2015 request provides funding to place the MOX Fuel Fabrication Facility “into cold-standby,” which likely means the end of the program.
The MOX program 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. NNSA is initiating yet another review to identify more cost-effective alternatives to dispose of our excess plutonium.
Meanwhile, though nonproliferation programs continue to suffer in the post Budget Control Act environment, weapons programs haven’t been forced to make the same kind of sacrifices. Indeed, the funding requests continue to explode. The FY 2015 request of $7.83 billion for nuclear weapons sustainment and modernization programs is an increase of nearly 7% above last year’s enacted level.
This is an extraordinary increase, especially relative to the DoD base budget, which is basically flat compared to last year. Overall, the funding request for weapons activities is nearly $2 billion (or 30 percent) more than FY 2010 enacted level.
We’ll have more to say about the weapons budget as more details are released, including the big increase for the B61 life extension program, the five year delay to the W87/88-1 life extension program, and the fate of the “3+2” warhead modernization strategy.
But whatever one thinks about what the appropriate level of spending for nuclear weapons modernization should be, we all should be able to agree that the relatively small budgets for nuclear and radiological material security programs are too important to be bill payers for something else.