Congress must get serious about the threat of nuclear terrorism

When Congress closed the books on its lame duck session in December, it did so without funding programs meant to ensure that nuclear material will not be accessible to terrorists. The 112th Congress’ first order of business must be to correct this grave mistake by funding the last six months of the FY2011 budget at the necessary level. At the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit, our president stood with 46 world leaders and announced that multi-lateral, cooperative efforts to secure all vulnerable nuclear material are central to both global and national security. Key proliferation prevention programs at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and the Departments of Defense and State support this goal. Not fully funding these programs is trusting too much of our national security to chance.  

President Obama’s budget request for fiscal year 2011 included a necessary increase of $320 million for vital non-proliferation programs. Congress included the additional funding in the Defense Authorization Act, but left it out of the final Continuing Resolution that will fund the government through March 4, 2011. Compelling critical programs to operate with insufficient budgets while expecting financial and political pledges from other countries is both hypocritical and irresponsible. Congress can – and should – take responsibility for their 11th hour edits to the CR and include funding that will meet our national security needs.

The greatest – but most easily preventable – threat to America today is terrorists with nukes. Our intelligence agencies consistently report that al Qaeda seeks nuclear materials or bombs, and that they see it as their religious duty to use weapons of mass destruction against Americans. The fight to secure vulnerable nuclear material is being waged quietly and deliberately, but we know it is being won. On December 31, 2010, the NNSA announced that 111 pounds of bomb-making highly enriched uranium (HEU) had been removed from three sites in Ukraine, bringing that country closer to fulfilling its commitment to remove all its HEU before 2012. In the last 18 months, six countries have given up all their nuclear material and a total of 120 bombs’ worth of material was secured. Removal plans are underway or planned in several other countries, as leaders strive to meet their national commitments before the 2012 Nuclear Security Summit. If Congress does not fully fund programs to stop nuclear proliferation at the NNSA and the Department of Defense, efforts to secure nuclear material and support U.S. national defense will be hindered. 

Congress must take a step towards strengthening our national security and include President Obama’s $320 million request in the fiscal year 2011 budget. Not doing so will slow the implementation of proven, practical, and efficient programs designed to prevent nuclear terrorism. We must be serious about our commitment to securing global stockpiles of nuclear material to make certain none falls into the wrong hands. Because not funding these essential programs is like forgetting to salt the walk before it snows, and being surprised when you slip and fall.  

Sarah Williams is a Herbert Scoville, Jr. Peace Fellow at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and serves as the coordinator for the Fissile Materials Working Group (FMWG), a non-governmental group of nuclear security experts. Alexandra Toma is executive director at the Connect U.S. Fund and co-chair of the FMWG. 

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