One year ago this April, President Obama first outlined his goal to “secure all vulnerable nuclear materials around the world within four years” in order to “ensure that terrorists never acquire a nuclear weapon.”
I don’t want to overstate the threat, but the likelihood of a nuclear attack is far from impossible. In January, a group of activists breached security at the Kleine Brogel air base in Belgium, where U.S. nuclear weapons are stored. A similar incident also took place the previous November. In January, the activists were not only able to hop the simple wire fence to get inside, they were able to enter the area where hardened shelters are located, containing aircraft and 10-20 U.S. B61 nuclear gravity bombs. Replace those activists with terrorists and the situation could get out of hand.
Unfortunately, the President’s budget for FY 2010 did not live up to his ambitious goal of only four years to secure enough material to build more than 120,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs. In fact, it provided over $200 million less than the last budget of the Bush administration.
This year things have changed. President Obama’s FY 2011 budget includes a total increase of approximately $320 million for global nuclear security and forecasts growth in the coming years for key programs run by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
The $2.7 billion budget request for the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation portfolio includes approximately $560 million for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, an increase of 68 percent, which will remove and secure “high-priority” vulnerable nuclear material around the world and accelerate conversions of highly enriched uranium fueled research reactors to the use of low-enriched uranium.
It also includes $590 million for the International Material Protection and Cooperation program, an increase of $18 million, designed to enhance the security of nuclear stockpiles and weapon-usable nuclear material in “countries of concern” and to improve the ability to detect the illicit trafficking of those resources.
At a meeting of the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee earlier this month, Vice Chairman Ed Pastor noted that, “Securing vulnerable nuclear material is a laudable goal, a goal that this committee supports. However, the magnitude of the increase, 26 percent, raises concerns whether the increase can be effectively executed in a single year.”
Ranking subcommittee Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen also stated that the president’s four-year objective is “laudable” but “not well defined.” Frelinghuysen noted that his “constituents are increasingly concerned about the country’s growing budget deficit and are calling for budget cuts, not budget increases.”
In his response, Steven Black noted multiple changes at NNSA that may positively affect its productivity, including a drop in the “personnel vacancy rate.” In addition, NNSA’s contracting process has been modified to allow for the execution of procurement actions “fairly quickly” and make use of small businesses to help carry out fuel removals and perform feasibility studies for research reactor conversions. “Without overpromising, we do believe we can effectively spend the [FY 2011] funds that we’re requesting of you,” he said.
Black acknowledged that, “It’s not easy to build a nuclear weapon,” but pointed out that “the consequences of a nuclear attack would be so dire that we would be greatly under-serving the American public if we failed to do everything we could as quickly as we can.”
For an objective look at the numbers, though, consider Alex Toma and Ken Luongo’s excellent comparison:
In 2007, climate change funding was at $6.5 billion — more than triple what we spend today on nuclear security. And nuclear security spending is only about one-third of 1 percent of the total defense budget this year… the real question should be whether we can afford not to aggressively finance the president’s four-year goal.