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House, Senate Differ On Effort To Lock Down Domestic Dirty Bomb Material

By Douglas P. Guarino

Global Security Newswire

A container of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium is loaded onto a plane for shipment out of Uzbekistan under the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative. Senate appropriators moved on Thursday to provide $49 million more for the program than the Obama administration had requested (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo). A container of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium is loaded onto a plane for shipment out of Uzbekistan under the U.S. Global Threat Reduction Initiative. Senate appropriators moved on Thursday to provide $49 million more for the program than the Obama administration had requested (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON -- Senate appropriators are looking to place a higher priority than their House counterparts on locking down domestic materials that terrorists could use to make a radiological weapon.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday approved a bill that would provide the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative with $100 million in fiscal year 2014 for international material protection. This is $49 million more than the Obama administration requested. In addition, the bill would provide $71.4 million for domestic material protection -- $15 million more than the administration is seeking.

“The committee is concerned by a lack of sufficient funding in the budget request to secure 8,500 buildings in the United States and overseas which legitimately use nuclear and radiological sources but, if stolen, could be used as effective improvised nuclear devises or radiological dispersal devises,” the panel said in its legislative report. It was referring in the latter case to a crude “dirty bomb” that would use conventional explosives to spread radioactive contamination over a potentially wide area.

“Radiological materials in particular are used at hospitals and universities to treat diseases and for other medical purposes but they have little or no security,” the text reads.

The Senate committee says the NNSA initiative is “the only government program that provides physical protection upgrades for civilian sites” and “has only installed security upgrades at 1,500 civilian buildings, or about 18 percent, that have high-priority, vulnerable nuclear and radiological materials.”

According to the panel, the administration’s proposed funding cut “would have abandoned the goal of securing 8,500 buildings by 2025” and pushed back the deadline by 20 years to 2044.

The senators said they would preserve the original 2025 deadline. “The committee believes that leaving these nuclear and radiological materials unsecure for an additional 20 years does not serve the national security interests of the United States,” the panel added.

This approach differs from that of House lawmakers. While the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would provide $208 million for GTRI international efforts -- $20 million above the administration’s request – it cuts funding for domestic GTRI activities, recommending $38 million, constituting a $35 million drop below the administration’s request. House appropriators argued that domestic nuclear materials “do not pose the same threat to national security” and “are already regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

NRC regulation of domestic radiological material has been criticized by the Government Accountability Office as inadequate, however. GAO officials have suggested that dangerous materials used in U.S. hospitals are often easy to steal, and that NRC rules do not go far enough in requiring preventative measures.

The disagreement over funding priorities for securing such materials comes as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is seeking comments on its relaxation of guidelines for how thorough cleanup after a radiological incident should be. EPA officials are also referencing standards for drinking water contaminated from such an incident that are thousands of times weaker than the agency’s own rules.

At the same time, issue experts are raising concerns that the end of President Obama’s four-year initiative to secure nuclear materials, combined with the cessation of a 20-year-agreement with Moscow to lock down materials in Russia, could weaken both White House and Capitol Hill support for funding related to efforts elsewhere.

Indeed, the White House is proposing to cut funding for such efforts in its budget, despite efforts in the Senate -- and to a lesser extent in the House -- to preserve funds.

The House in its report does hint, however, that it is looking for future opportunities to save money as a result of the end of the president’s four-year initiative. It also notes uncertainty pertaining to the future of the GTRI program, given the expiration of the Cooperative Threat Reduction agreement with Russia, which was replaced last week with a more limited accord.

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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