Threats and opportunities in nuclear security spending

As ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Nita Lowey has the ability to make sure this funding is restore in order to protect America from the threat of nuclear terrorism.

Since 2009, GTRI has successfully secured more than 1,400 kilograms of uranium and plutonium worldwide, enough nuclear material to make dozens of bombs. Two years ago, in the wake of a damaging earthquake, an expert team from the GTRI program removed 30 pounds of weapons-useable highly enriched uranium from a reactor in Santiago, Chile. The material was brought back to the United States – secure from theft and out of reach from terrorists. According to the Washington Post, the total cost of the operation to the federal government was $3 million, a bargain if one considers the consequences of a nuclear detonation.

Programs like GTRI allow the US to secure nuclear materials for a far cheaper cost than other national security programs. However, the Obama administration’s proposed funding cuts jeopardize these efforts by pushing back plans to secure radiological sources by twenty years, to 2044.

In rare bipartisan consensus lasting more than a decade, both Democrats and Republicans recognize that, in an age of transnational terrorism, there is vital need for this work. In 2009, Sen. Robert Casey (D-Penn.), member of the Foreign Relations Committee argued, “there is no greater national security danger to the American people than the threat of a terrorist group destroying an American city with a nuclear weapon.” Similarly, retired Republican Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a leader on these issues, said in 2010 that, “today’s most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism…today’s other pressing threat is nuclear proliferation.”  The Obama administration’s proposed budget allocation runs contrary to this longstanding consensus.

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Despite recognition of GTRI’s importance, the Obama Administration’s proposed budget sacrifices money for this successful nuclear security program in order to pay for one of the most wasteful projects on the books today - the Mixed-Oxide fuel program (MOX). In 2014, NNSA plans to spend more than $500 million on MOX.

Since its inception, MOX, which intends to eliminate weapons grade plutonium by turning it into commercial fuel for use in nuclear reactors, has been plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays. Construction of the MOX Facility is more than a decade behind schedule and its price tag has tripled to nearly $8 billion. If the facility opened tomorrow, the MOX program has failed to find a single customer to buy the fuel it plans to produce. Moreover, the National Academy of Sciences has identified alternative ways of eliminating plutonium that are both less expensive and less dangerous.

Congress will have to choose between this $8 billion failed fuel project or just $75 million to keep the homeland safe from nuclear attack. Rep. Lowey is in a position to lead Congress in a constructive debate to see if national security priorities trump failed programs – I think even Congress can agree on such a matter.

In the past, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have been supportive of GTRI and critical of the MOX program. In 2012, the House and Senate agreed to increase funding for GTRI. Meanwhile, in its fiscal year 2012 Report, the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations subcommittee noted significant concern regarding MOX’s history of rising cost, delays and overall management.

When considering budget priorities, Congress must reduce the allocations for facility construction until NNSA decides what to do about MOX and its costs overruns and mismanagement. . A small fraction of the unused money should, instead, be used to fully fund the GTRI program, a program with a proven track record.

At a time when the federal government has few resources to spare, Congress cannot afford to continue with wasteful programs like MOX. Doing so diverts resources away from critical nuclear security programs like GTRI that work behind the scenes to maintain the security of the American people.

Roth is research assistant at the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland and a policy fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.