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Rhetoric aside, the US commitment to preventing nuclear terrorism is waning

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With the world focused on the United States and North Korea, it’s easy to forget that every president for a quarter-century has said preventing nuclear terrorism was a national security priority. This includes the Trump administration, which identified in its Nuclear Posture Review that nuclear terrorism is one of “the most significant threats to the security of the United States.” It appears, however, despite this strong rhetoric, the administration may not be putting its money where its mouth is.

The Trump administration is proposing massive cuts to vital programs responsible for securing nuclear weapons-usable material around the world. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), the agency primarily responsible for working with other countries to reduce nuclear terrorism risks, wants to reduce spending for nuclear security programs by $115 million in 2019, a 26 percent reduction from last year.

{mosads}Most alarmingly, over the next three years, it proposes cutting programs to increase security at nuclear facilities by 60 percent, from $355 million estimated in 2016 (the last time the executive branch produced five-year nuclear security budgets) to $143 million. It proposes cutting the amount of money the United States plans to spend on removing nuclear weapons usable material by 64 percent over the next three years, from an estimated $410 million in 2016 to $146 million.


Cuts to U.S. nuclear security programs did not begin with the Trump administration. Over the past five years, U.S. funding for such efforts has dropped by nearly 50 percent, reducing some programs to their lowest funding levels in more than 20 years. Even when those budgets were being cut, however, the Obama administration planned major projects one or two years in the future. For example, the United States has spent years convincing Belarus, Kazakhstan, and South Africa to eliminate large quantities of highly-enriched uranium from their soil.

In the past, the U.S. budget would include money for removing this material when agreements were reached. Additionally, the United States is beginning the process of identifying and repatriating more than a ton of nuclear weapons-usable plutonium it shipped around the world decades ago. The Trump administration’s long-term nuclear security budgets no longer include money for accomplishing these goals.

It will now be up to Congress to respond to the administration’s nuclear security budget. Congress needs to sustain the priority of nuclear security, in programs not just in words. It can do this by pursuing the following three strategies.

First, Congress should direct the administration to develop a comprehensive, multifaceted strategy to secure all nuclear and radiological weapons, materials and facilities worldwide, with an emphasis on prioritizing the material posing the greatest risks. This strategy should, in particular, focus on encouraging and incentivizing countries to make nuclear security a priority; ensuring that all nuclear materials, weapons and facilities around the world are protected against all plausible threats in those countries; assessing and strengthening nuclear security culture at nuclear facilities; and supporting efforts to reduce security costs by consolidating nuclear materials to fewer sites.

Second, Congress should allocate adequate resources to execute a comprehensive nuclear security strategy. President Trump’s current budget request is sufficient for a limited nuclear security effort, but not for a broader, comprehensive program focused on meaningful risk reduction. As first steps, Congress should reject proposed cuts to NNSA nuclear security programs, return nuclear security spending to roughly its FY 2016 level of just over $500 million, and direct the administration to identify how much funding would be needed for a comprehensive nuclear security effort.

Third, relevant congressional committees should shine a light on the nuclear terrorism threat. Congressional committees have not held in-depth hearings focused on strategies for reducing nuclear terrorism risks in a long time. The Senate and House Armed Services or Intelligence Committees should hold hearings on this topic annually, highlighting countries and regions that are most vulnerable to nuclear theft; emerging nuclear security threats; progress in reducing nuclear terrorism threats; and impediments to progress.

The Senate National Security Working Group (NSWG) or WMD Caucus should request briefings from the Trump administration on this issue. This should include senior-level briefings, but also discussions between Congressional and Department of Energy (DOE) staff focused on implementation at the programmatic level. The NSWG also should request a briefing from DOE’s Nuclear Materials Information Program, which manages a database containing all U.S. information regarding global nuclear material stocks and how well they are protected.

At a speech in Fort Myer, Virginia, President Trump declared last summer that the United States “must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world.” This can happen only if the president and Congress allocate enough money to accomplish this task. This is a goal worthy of bipartisan cooperation so rare on Capitol Hill these days.

Nickolas Roth is a research associate with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Matthew Bunn is professor of practice and co-principal investigator with the Project on Managing the Atom. William H. Tobey is a senior fellow with the Belfer Center and former deputy administrator for defense nuclear nonproliferation at the National Nuclear Security Administration.

Tags Donald Trump National Nuclear Security Administration Nuclear power Nuclear proliferation Nuclear safety and security Nuclear weapons
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