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US spending less to secure world’s nuclear bomb materials

A sign cautions employees of the potential radiation risks at the Nevada National Security Site, previously called the Nevada Test Site. The area is now maintained by the U.S. Department of Energy. (Jessica Boehm/Cronkite News Service/TNS)

Terrorists are avowedly trying to build nuclear bombs, but U.S. spending to safeguard the world’s atomic materials has dipped in recent years — and President Donald Trump plans to keep it that way, according to budget documents, independent experts and lawmakers.

An Energy-Water spending bill passed last week by the Senate in a package with two other spending measures proposes a slight increase for nuclear security programs. But it would still leave the budget for those efforts far below what it was just a few years ago.

“Nuclear terrorism remains among the most significant threats to the security of the United States, allies and partners,” declared the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review, released in February,

However, according to the Arms Control Association, Trump’s fiscal 2019 budget request for what the group calls “core” nuclear nonproliferation programs at the Energy Department is fully 18 percent lower than the level of funding such programs had eight years ago, even before accounting for inflation’s shrinking effect on purchasing power.

Moreover, Trump’s five-year Energy Department budget plan for fiscal years 2019 through 2023 would increase spending on nuclear security programs at an average of less than 1.5 percent a year, which is probably not enough to even keep pace with inflation.

The slowdown in nonproliferation spending comes at the same time as — and may be largely driven by — higher Energy Department spending on nuclear weapons, many critics say. DOE’s nuclear weapons budget is about nine times larger than the core nonproliferation initiatives, and the gap is expected to widen.

“The defense nonproliferation program’s track record of success merits continued, strong investment,” Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, the top Democrat on the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, said in a statement for Roll Call. “Yet this administration has repeatedly and significantly increased the budget for DOE’s weapons program — 17 percent over the past two years — while funding for nonproliferation remains on a downward trajectory.”

Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy-Water Appropriations panel, told Roll Call: “The threat of a terrorist with a dirty bomb is something we have to take seriously. But we can’t just throw money at the problem. There must be a plan to use funds effectively, and right now I’m worried that administration has no such plan.”

President Barack Obama, after a couple of years of high funding for nuclear nonproliferation, reduced spending on it while still in his first term. And Congress essentially went along with that. But Trump’s budget plan for nuclear nonproliferation is 15 percent less than Obama had planned for the next three fiscal years.

Under Trump’s plan, some key programs would drop by 60 percent or more in those three years, compared to what Obama’s team had budgeted, according to Nickolas Roth, a research associate at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

The cuts come, Roth argued, amid uncertainty about whether U.S. efforts to strengthen nuclear security are keeping up with threats.

“Political interest in preventing nuclear terrorism is waning,” he said.

There are several plausible explanations for why spending has come down for certain nuclear-security programs, but the threat makes it critical that more money be allocated to keep those programs going and to develop new initiatives, many experts say.

“The work that remains to be done to secure nuclear and radiological materials and the current and likely future challenges to nonproliferation merits increased funding, not less for these vital programs,” Kingston Reif, an expert on nuclear and strategic issues at the Arms Control Association, told Roll Call in a statement. “In the absence of a new strategic vision for nuclear security, funding for this mission will continue to decline, critical expertise will be lost, and our capacity to address the evolving threat will erode.”

In contrast to the parsimonious budgeting for nuclear security, Energy Department spending on nuclear warheads and associated infrastructure will have grown 60 percent, to $11 billion, in the last eight years, if Trump’s fiscal 2019 request for those programs is enacted in full.

Looking ahead, Trump would augment spending on DOE’s nuclear weapons programs by another 18 percent in the next five years, budget documents show.

That’s in addition to what the Pentagon plans to spend on new versions of the subs, aircraft and missiles that would deliver the warheads. All told, U.S. spending on an upgraded nuclear arsenal will cost about $1 trillion over the next few decades.

As for fiscal 2019, the House Energy-Water spending bill would provide even more than Trump wants for atomic arms programs at DOE ($11.2 billion). The House bill would also ratify the president’s proposal to allocate $1.25 billion for DOE nuclear nonproliferation programs, down from the $1.53 billion enacted in fiscal 2011.

The Senate’s companion measure, which became part of the trio of spending bills that the Senate passed last week, would trim Trump’s DOE atomic weapons request to $10.9 billion and would slightly raise nonproliferation funding to $1.35 billion.

House and Senate negotiators will soon compromise on the final total for Energy’s weapons and nonproliferation programs in the coming fiscal year. But the outcome appears likely to come close to Trump’s budget requests and therefore will all but certainly reinforce a trend that began under Obama: more for nuclear weapons, less for keeping nuclear materials out of terrorists’ hands.

The nuclear security programs are “fighting for scraps” after the nuclear weapons budgets are funded, Reif said.

The momentum behind nuclear security initiatives has waned across the world, and the flagging attention is largely due, critics say, to a lack of leadership on the issue in Washington.

There are many explanations for the lower spending, critics and administration officials agree. First, the dangers of unsecured nuclear materials have diminished, if only slightly, because more material is protected in more countries. And efforts to control the remaining material have stalled, partly because the four nuclear security summits from 2010 to 2016 have run their course with no sign they will be renewed.

Third, the United States and Russia are no longer cooperating on nonproliferation programs, so those efforts can no longer be funded. And certain international nonproliferation efforts were not efficiently run, congressional aides have said, and so millions of U.S. dollars for those programs have gone unspent. By contrast, weapons programs only rarely are funded at lower rates when unspent money is left over from prior years, critics point out.

Securing nuclear materials remains a top priority for the Trump administration, said Dov Schwartz, a spokesman for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

“No other country places such resources on this important mission,” Schwartz told Roll Call in a statement. “The administration’s FY19 budget request enables NNSA to accomplish its objectives to protect the American people from nuclear terrorism.”

Despite the budget cutbacks and the modest progress in securing some global nuclear materials, there are few signs that the threat of so-called loose nukes is any less grave, experts say. It may be growing more worrisome, some note, because of the expanding and increasingly sophisticated cyberthreat, as well new technologies like 3-D printing.

The same appropriators who have agreed to downsize spending on nuclear security programs in recent years still express urgency about the mission.

“Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation provides a vitally important component of our national security — preventing nuclear materials and weapons from falling into the wrong hands,” the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote in the report accompanying its new bill. “This mission is challenged by an increasingly dangerous world with emerging and evolving threats, in addition to the proliferation of technologies that simplify production, manufacturing, and design of nuclear materials and weapons.”

The Nuclear Threat Initiative, a nonprofit research group that tracks controls over nuclear materials, says on its website that the threat is essentially undiminished, despite recent progress.

“Increasingly well-organized and well-funded terrorist organizations — which now have easy access to the know-how needed to build a bomb — have declared their intent to seek the materials necessary for weapons of mass destruction,” the group says.

Radiological materials that could be used in a so-called dirty bomb are available in dozens of countries at thousands of sites, experts say. A dirty bomb would explode these materials and disseminate radioactivity without a full nuclear reaction associated with an atomic bomb.

The materials are often used in commercial applications such as industrial gauges or medical irradiation equipment.

In addition, some 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials are stored in a couple of dozen countries, whereas all that is required to build a bomb is enough highly enriched uranium to fill a 5-pound sugar bag or a quantity of plutonium the size of a grapefruit, wrote former Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, D-Ga., head of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in his group’s latest assessment of the threat, published in 2016.

Even if the odds of a terrorist building and then successfully using a fission or radiological device are low, the harm would be tremendous, experts warn.

The result of such an attack, Nunn wrote, would be “catastrophic consequences that would stretch across the globe for economies, commerce, militaries, public health, the environment, civil liberties, and the stability of governments. … Without the high-level attention and impetus provided by the summits and with so many competing priorities in a deeply unsettled world, can governments remain focused on the need to tighten nuclear materials security? It’s a troubling question given how much is left undone and the potential consequences of inaction.”

The answer to the question in Washington is increasingly: No.

“It’s concerning that, after we spent decades trying to reduce this threat, there seems to be less interest, in the administration and in the House in particular, in tackling this problem,” said Miles Pomper, a senior fellow with the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

More money is needed for converting reactors to lower-grade uranium, securing dangerous materials and increasing the use of nonradiological industrial processes, Pomper said.

“There’s certainly a lot more that can be done,” he said.

The Energy Department programs at issue support domestic and international efforts to monitor and safeguard nuclear materials at both civilian and military facilities. Included, too, are programs to convert nuclear reactors to lower-grade uranium, as is research into new ways of detecting nuclear materials.

The Trump administration’s plans for some of these programs are significantly reduced compared to what Obama had envisioned. For example, spending on bolstering security at other countries’ nuclear facilities would go down by 60 percent in the fiscal years 2019-21 period, and spending on initiatives to remove nuclear weapons material from around the world in those years would go down by 64 percent, according to Harvard’s Belfer Center.

Attention to such programs waxed during the George W. Bush administration after the 9/11 attacks. Obama continued the emphasis, at least at the start of his administration, saying the programs were his top national security priority.

“Of all the threats to global security and peace, the most dangerous is the proliferation and potential use of nuclear weapons,” Obama wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in March 2016.

In his nuclear posture review of 2010, Obama elevated this policy’s significance to a place equal to that of America’s offensive nuclear firepower.

But the focus on nuclear materials dissipated, and so did the money.

After spending on such programs increased in Obama’s first two budgets, it then dropped from fiscal years 2012 through 2015. The budget has fluctuated up and down since then, but always at a considerably lower level than in Obama’s first couple of years.


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