Funding cuts jeopardize nuclear non-proliferation

However, funding cuts made to protect our financial security must not jeopardize our national security. Unfortunately, the United States House of Representatives recently passed spending reductions to the stop-gap measure designed to fund the government through fiscal year 2011 that would dangerously weaken national security by leaving us more vulnerable to nuclear terrorism. The resolution short-changes urgent nuclear non-proliferation efforts under the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) by more than $600 million. This funding is a small fraction of the federal budget, but a vital part of our national security.  

At a time when Al Qaeda seeks to obtain nuclear weapons, this funding is important.  Congress should appropriate the necessary resources for these vital and urgent programs to secure, remove, or curb the spread of nuclear materials. 

The threat of nuclear terrorism is one of the gravest national security threats we face today. The bipartisan 9/11 Commission found that, “The greatest danger of another catastrophic attack in the United States will materialize if the world's most dangerous terrorists acquire the world's most dangerous weapons.” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has served under both Presidents Bush and Obama, stated, “Every senior leader, when you’re asked what keeps you awake at night, it’s the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear.” A sophisticated group could make a crude nuclear device if it could access the necessary material – and not much is needed. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, only 8 kilograms of plutonium are needed for a Nagasaki-type bomb. Just 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium are needed for a nuclear bomb like the one used in Hiroshima. 

Though the threat of nuclear terrorism is all too real, it can be prevented. Our best defense is to secure or remove materials that could be used for nuclear weapons or dirty bombs from vulnerable locations where they might be stolen or sold to terrorists.  Today, these materials are located primarily in Russia but are also scattered in over forty other countries. Many of these countries possess small, but minimally secured, quantities of this material. Our security is only as strong as our weakest link. Every one of these locations matters. 

Securing or removing nuclear material is a challenge that requires not only funding but also international cooperation. We have seen significant progress in past years. In April of 2009 President Obama committed to securing all vulnerable nuclear materials worldwide by 2013, and he called for international leadership to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. Last year, he convened an unprecedented Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, D.C., where the leaders of 47 nations pledged to do their part. As a result of US leadership, countries such as Belarus, Chile, Mexico, Serbia, and Ukraine, are giving up, or have already removed, their highly-enriched uranium. In those places where the process is not yet completed, without adequate U.S. funding, this dangerous material could remain at risk of theft by the radical groups that seek it.

The cost of securing loose nuclear materials and preventing their further spread is negligible compared to the unimaginable tragedy of a potential nuclear attack on one of our cities, should terrorists gain access to those materials.  And in 2003, our nation went to war with Iraq because of the assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. As that decision proved, military intervention to stop or reverse nuclear weapons programs is far more costly, risky and difficult than making sound investments upfront in non-proliferation efforts.

Short-changing these initiatives now, while the international momentum exists to reach our goal, will not only send the wrong message to our allies, but will directly impact the quantity of dangerous nuclear materials that might fall into the hands of terrorists.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) is the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.) is a member of the House Committee on Appropriations and sits on the Energy and Water and Defense Subcommittees.