Congress needs to wake up to nuclear security threat

Congress needs to wake up to nuclear security threat
© Greg Nash

With much of the world’s attention trained on nuclear risks from North Korea, Iran, and Russia, the unfinished work of keeping nuclear materials and know-how from criminals and terrorists cannot be ignored. As the White House emphasizes state-based threats, Congress must take up a greater leadership role to prevent a nuclear or radiological 9/11.

Effective congressional oversight of this issue has been constrained in recent years by numerous obstacles, including limited institutional knowledge, misunderstanding of the subject, skepticism of mission need, competing priorities, and funding constraints. A first-ever study assessing congressional attitudes on nuclear security, published in July by the Arms Control Association and Partnership for a Secure America, found a worrying erosion of engagement, expertise, and interest.

This study revealed a pervasive doubt among congressional staff in Congress’s ability to lead on global nuclear security. Yet, our research also showed that staff believe Congress should do more. So there is hope.

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At a recent UN Security Council meeting in New York, President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE reasserted America’s commitment to global counter-proliferation efforts, stating “The nations of the world have long recognized that certain weapons are so dangerous, and can inflict so much suffering, that all of us have a vital interest in preventing their further development, spread, and use.”

Unfortunately, these remarks focused only on state-based concerns and missed an opportunity to discuss the more shadowy threat of nuclear terrorism. Highlighting this threat in its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Pentagon argued that “Preventing the illicit acquisition of a nuclear weapon, nuclear materials, or related technology and expertise by a violent extremist organization is a significant U.S. national security priority." 

Historically, bipartisan congressional support has been the lifeblood of U.S. leadership on global nuclear security. It can happen again. Senators Sam Nunn, D-Ga., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., embodied this reality as the architects of U.S. programs to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and materials after the fall of the Soviet Union. In recent years, bipartisan leaders like Sens. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinFocus on Yemen, not the Saudi crown prince Senators want assurances from attorney general pick on fate of Mueller probe Mattis: Investigation into killing of Khashoggi is ongoing MORE, D-Calif., and Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderOvernight Health Care: Manchin pitched Trump on reviving bipartisan ObamaCare fix | 4 in 10 don’t plan to get flu shots | Survey finds more than a quarter have pre-existing conditions Manchin pitched Trump on reviving bipartisan ObamaCare fix Bush hailed for principles as lawmakers pay respects MORE, R-Tenn., have championed sizable funding increases for nuclear security programs, including an additional $150 million for the Department of Energy in fiscal year 2019.

But there is a growing need for creative policies to anticipate and counter the nuclear security risks from both traditional threats and emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing, offensive cyber tools, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. Despite progress through the four Nuclear Security Summits held between 2010 and 2016, a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative has warned that continuing to prevent  nuclear terrorism is “jeopardized by a deterioration of political stability and governance, an increase in corruption, and the expanding presence of terrorist groups around the world.”

As nuclear security challenges facing the nation expand and grow more complex, there is a need for Congress to play a more active role. Despite recognition by both Republicans and Democrats that nuclear terrorism remains a critical concern, congressional attention has declined, and few new ideas have been put forward to advance the mission.

Today, there remains a significant need for further U.S. resources, ideas, and initiatives. Our congressional study showed there was virtual unanimity that more should be done to shore up the global nuclear security architecture, but there were few ideas on how to do that. To reignite congressional leadership on securing and eliminating nuclear materials around the world, we recommend three actionable ideas for Capitol Hill.

In the near term, Congress should require the Office of Management and Budget to prepare an annual report summarizing the aggregate U.S. budget for nuclear security and nonproliferation programs. As it now stands, programs to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism are spread throughout the government. A consolidated summary would offer a clear picture of gaps and overlaps.

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Looking ahead, a blue ribbon, bipartisan congressional commission should be established to develop by 2020 a comprehensive strategy to prevent, counter, and respond to nuclear and radiological terrorism. This commission, modeled after the bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission, should identify and offer solutions for the most serious nuclear and radiological terrorism risks and critical emerging threats. This expert group should consider the resources needed for implementing their recommendations and outline a progress assessment.

Congress should also establish a program of activities exploring options to strengthen nuclear security in North Korea as part of the future phased and verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure.

Laying the groundwork for such efforts must begin now.

Congress should provide no less than $100 million to be divided between the Defense Department’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program and the Energy Department’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program. This initiative would model the verification and security requirements associated with different denuclearization steps and scenarios, identify gaps, and provide recommendations for needed capabilities.

In addition to pursuing these recommendations, lawmakers should invite expert presentations at hearings and briefings. While more pressing headline issues will continue to dominate Capitol Hill, Congress must not ignore or diminish this evolving threat.

Nuclear technologies are spreading, the world is growing more unpredictable, and terrorists will not hesitate to use nuclear and radiological materials if they get them. It is time for Congress to re-engage.

Jack Brosnan is a Program Associate for nuclear initiatives at Partnership for a Secure America.

Kingston Reif is the Director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association. Follow him on Twitter @KingstonAReif.

Dr. Andrew Semmel is Chairman of the Board of Directors at Partnership for a Secure America and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nuclear Nonproliferation.

Nathan Sermonis is the Executive Director of Partnership for a Secure America.

They are the authors of a new joint report "Empowering Congress on Nuclear Security: Blueprints for a New Generation," published by the Arms Control Association and Partnership for a Secure America.