Facing the nuclear terrorism threat

In January, the Kleine Brogel air base in Belgium was compromised when an anti-nuclear group breached security fencing and, undetected, spent more than an hour on the base where U.S. nuclear weapons are suspected to be stored. Then they uploaded a video of how they exploited the security weaknesses to YouTube. In February the top U.S. intelligence official told Congress that he is “especially concerned” about terrorists’ access to WMD-related materials and technologies, and underscored that al Qaeda’s priority was to mount a large-scale attack on the country in the next six months. Replace the peace activists with terrorists and the results could be devastating.

With enough nuclear material to build more than 120,000 Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs spread around the globe, and significant amounts of these materials inadequately secured in dangerous regions, the nuclear terrorism threat is real and it’s time to get serious about rapidly locking down and reducing these dangerous stockpiles.

This year the Obama administration and the Congress will have four unique opportunities to strengthen America’s defense against nuclear terrorism and expand the global coalition that can support the president’s goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear materials around the globe in four years. This objective received a bipartisan standing ovation at the State of the Union speech.  But, if both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue follow a business-as-usual approach, we could end up less secure as a result.

Overcoming a disappointing budget for this agenda in the current fiscal year, the administration presented to Congress a proposal that increases U.S spending for global nuclear security by $320 million next year, to a total in the range of $2 billion. This significant increase over the current year’s budget has already elicited grumbling behind the scenes on Capitol Hill, with some questioning whether the programs can absorb such a spending swell. 

But, the real question should be whether we can afford not to aggressively finance the president’s four-year goal.  Compare the budget for locking down nuclear weapons and materials with another global challenge like climate change. 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.  

In fact, Congress could consider boosting the current year’s budget for nuclear security by a modest $115 million as part of a supplemental appropriations bill to kickstart the process.  

But the weight of moving this agenda is not solely on the Congress. President Barack Obama will host an unprecedented heads-of-state global nuclear security summit April 12-13.  It will include 44 nations and they are being asked to come to Washington with their own nuclear security commitments as well as take part in discussing a global plan of action.  But, will the global game plan be bold enough to meet this 21st century threat? The administration is trying to make it so, but there is a sense in some nations and regions that nuclear terrorism is not an acute danger to them and that not much more needs to be done.  At the very least the goal of this summit will be to change these perceptions.

Later in the spring and then in the summer, the international community will gather for two events where the opportunity exists to galvanize their policy and financial commitment to prevent nuclear terrorism.  The first is a meeting of the signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in New York.  Here, the focus will likely be more on the disagreements among nations than their common challenges, but it is an opportunity to address nuclear material dangers. The second is the joint meeting in Canada of the G-8 and G-20 nations.  The G-8 already has a multilateral initiative on WMD security called the “Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction.”  But this initiative needs to be reshaped, re-energized, and refinanced so that its focus is global and its implementation effective.  Additionally, the G-20 nations, now solely addressing economic issues, should become more concerned with global security issues (including nuclear dangers), and offer their contributions to the effort. 

Effective and lasting nuclear security worldwide will not be achieved unless key policymakers around the world come to believe nuclear terrorism is a real threat to their countries’ security and economy, and then invest their time and resources to adequately address this threat.  There are now four opportunities for the U.S. and its partners to further bar the door against nuclear terrorism.  Insufficient action in this important year could have consequences that we may not want to contemplate.

The authors co-chair the Fissile Materials Working Group (fmwg.org).  Toma is program director at the Connect U.S. Fund and Luongo is president of the Partnership for Global Security.