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Democrats Seek More Money to Secure Nuclear Material

By Jon Fox

Global Security Newswire

WASHINTON -- As part of their agenda for the first 100 hours as the majority party, House Democrats plan to bring to the floor next week a bill implementing Sept. 11 commission recommendations, including increased funding to secure nuclear material in the former Soviet Union (see GSN, Dec. 6, 2006).

The bill also would require radiation scanning of all cargo containers leaving overseas ports for the United States and calls for a crackdown on the international black market in nuclear technology, according to a congressional summary of the bill.

A calendar posted on the Web site of Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) indicates a vote to enact a number of the commission's recommendations is scheduled for Tuesday.

The drafted legislation would remove the cap on funding to secure weapons of mass destruction and related materials in countries outside the former Soviet Union.  Oversight of such funding would also be strengthened.

Also included are additional funds for fiscal 2007 to support both the Cooperative Threat Reduction program and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative. 

After the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Congress initiated Cooperative Threat Reduction programs to help former Soviet states eliminate and secure nuclear weapons and strategic missiles.

During the 1990s funding for the CTR programs, which were expanded to include concerns about chemical and biological weapons, hovered around $400 million.  The most recent appropriation bill provides $372 million for fiscal 2007.

The United States in 2004 launched the Global Threat Reduction Initiative in conjunction with the International Atomic Energy Agency to further tighten security surrounding nuclear material.  Fiscal 2007 GTRI funding for is set just below $120 million in both House and Senate versions of an appropriation bill that was left unpassed in the closing days of 2006.

Two of the main focuses of the CTR program include destruction of chemical weapons stockpiles and increasing warhead security in Russia.  The program also includes the decommissioning of nuclear weapons and the blending down of weapon-grade uranium.  One of the main thrusts of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative is converting nuclear reactors running on highly enriched uranium and repatriating fuel from foreign research reactors.

Removing limits on funding for CTR projects outside the boundaries of the former Soviet Union would certainly strengthen the program, said Raphael Della Ratta, a WMD expert with the Partnership for Global Security.

Citing the example of a small stockpile of chemical weapons in Albania revealed to the United States and the United Nations in 2004, Della Ratta said, "The threat isn't just Russia anymore.  We need the flexibility and resources to address these problems when they arise" (see GSN, Jan. 10, 2005).

"The Cooperative Threat Reduction program needs to be pushed to more global threats," Della Ratta said.  "Cooperative Threat Reduction programs when the 9/11 commission report came out did not get a good grade."

The commission doled out a "D" for U.S. nonproliferation efforts to secure weapons of mass destruction.

CTR programs are "in need of expansion, improvement and resources," the commission wrote.  "The U.S. government has recently redoubled its international commitments to support this program, and we recommend the United States do all it can, if Russia and other countries will do their part."

While acknowledging that additional funding could enhance the threat reduction programs, Jon Wolfsthal, a nuclear nonproliferation expert with the Center of Strategic and International Studies, said funding issues have not been the main impediment.

"More money is always better; you can always do more with more funding," he said.  However, "the main constraints on effective CTR, especially in Russia, have not been financial, they have been political."

The priorities of the current administration have not always been in line with the programs and there have been a number of difficulties working with the Russian bureaucracy on projects, Wolfsthal said.

In one example, construction of the U.S.-funded Shchuchye chemical weapons destruction complex in Russia's far east is more than a year behind schedule due to problems working with the Russian government and what Washington says are inflated construction bids from Russian contractors.

"I think the 9/11 commission got it absolutely right when they said we need to do more," Wolfsthal said.  Still, "if I had to pick one way to address CTR, funding would not be the absolute top."

The bill would also repeal certain conditions on CTR assistance to Russia.  In order for the funding to be released, the president must annually certify to Congress that Russia has satisfied a number of conditions, including abiding by all human rights agreements, following all arms control agreements and not using any of the funds for offensive military programs.

"It's a variety of very general sort of do-good arms-control conditions," said Paul Walker, an arms control expert with Global Green USA.

Bush has refused to certify that the conditions have been met each year, requiring Congress to insert language into the defense authorization bill to allow the conditions to be waived, Walker said.  Repealing the "political" conditions would simplify appropriations and streamline what has been "a very bureaucratic process in the past," he said.

The conditions are so "broad-brush" that virtually no nation could pass, according to Walker.  "You couldn't certify the United States let alone Russia," he said. 

Removing them could ease relations with Russia and represent a step forward in bilateral relations, he said.  "They've been a real thorn in the side of the Russians, who have stated again and again that their problem with the Americans is that they put all these political conditions on everything.  It has really created bad blood."

The bill also includes steps to strengthen the Proliferation Security Initiative, which aims to interdict the clandestine shipment of weapons of mass destruction or related equipment between nations.  The creation of a separate budget for PSI activities is included as well allowing for financial assistance to countries participating in the initiative.  Congress must also be notified in advance of the shipment of a U.S.-made military ship or aircraft to any country not participating in the interdiction program.

Not a formal organization, the Proliferation Security Initiative has been described by the State Department "interdiction partnership among participating states" and does not have its own budget.

A provision also provides for the creation of a "presidential coordinator" to improve the effectiveness of U.S. nonproliferation programs and expresses Congress's desire that the president urge Russia to create a similar position.  In addition, the bill would establish a "congressional-executive commission" to study international nonproliferation activities.

Under the section addressing the inspection of cargo containers being shipped to the United States from abroad, the bill requires that all containers leaving the largest overseas ports be scanned for radiation and that those scans be reviewed by U.S. security officials before the containers are loaded. Smaller ports would have five years to meet the same requirement.

According to the House bill, the Homeland Security Department would have one year to implement this requirement after issuing a report on a pilot scanning program at three overseas ports mandated in the SAFE Ports Act passed last year.  The department has one year to implement the pilot program and must submit a report within six months of its completion.

Late last year before a House committee, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff shrugged off Democratic calls for all U.S.-bound cargo to be scanned for radiation, saying that such a requirement would reduce trade by 75 percent and is beyond current capabilities.

Calling it a "wonderful aspiration" but an unrealistic mandate, he likened such a requirement to Congress passing a law demanding cancer be cured in three years (see GSN, Sept. 27).

While the Sept. 11 commission's recommendations highlighted security risks related to cargo containers the Democratic bill goes beyond the commission's suggestions in requiring all overseas ports to conduct radiation scanning.

To address the emergence of a black market for nuclear technology and materials, the Democrats' bill provides for sanctions against individuals believed to be involved in illegal nuclear trade.  It would also make U.S. assistance to countries contingent on cooperation in the investigation of nuclear black market networks.

NTI Analysis