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Obama Budget Cuts Deeply From Threat Reduction Accounts

By Chris Schneidmiller

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration’s new budget would cut more than $300 million from programs intended to prevent terrorists from obtaining nuclear materials or other ingredients for weapons of mass destruction, according to a new analysis by an organization that advocates the work.

“If enacted by Congress, these cuts will undermine global U.S. leadership to prevent nuclear terrorism,” the Partnership for Global Security said in the report. “They also threaten the foundation of threat reduction programs that have been built up over two decades to protect the public from the misuse of nuclear and radiological materials.”

Warnings from the nongovernmental organization and like-minded groups came days – or, in one case, just hours -- before two bombs detonated Monday along the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three and injuring close to 200. While post-Sept. 11 terrorist plots against the United States have focused on conventional means, issue specialists say now is not the time for leaders to let their guard down against the WMD threat.

The key departments for WMD threat reduction -- Defense, Energy and State -- assert there is good reason for the spending switches. In some cases, programs are being curbed after meeting major goals, while in others funding is being rebalanced to address new priorities, according to officials and budget documents.

Partnership for Global Security President Kenneth Luongo said there is cause for worry that go beyond the numbers. For example, the Energy Department’s new budget plan affirms Washington’s intent to protect the world’s “most vulnerable nuclear materials” as of this year. That seems a step back from President Obama’s pledge in April 2009 to secure “all vulnerable nuclear material” within four years, he said.

“Changing ‘all’ to ‘most’ is moving the goal posts when no one knew where the goal line was to begin with,” Luongo asserted by e-mail. “They were let off the hook in the first term when no one pressed them to define ‘all,’ but that goodwill evaporated a long time ago. Now we are confronted with a major policy change buried in the bowels of a budget document with no explanation.”

The Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration and the State Department would collectively lose $313 million for a number of security projects under the spending plan for fiscal 2014, according to Luongo. While the Pentagon’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program would see a nearly $10 million boost in the budget year that begins on Oct. 1, at least one sub-project would receive nearly $45 million less funding.

The April 11 PGS report compares the latest budget requests for select security activities against what the departments expect to receive in the current fiscal year via two continuing resolutions passed by Congress in place of full-year appropriations bills. Present-year spending plans remain vulnerable to cuts under the deficit-slashing federal sequester.

Major cutbacks would come at the semi-independent DOE branch that oversees the U.S. nuclear arms complex and carries out nonproliferation projects around the world.

The NNSA Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation account is proposed at $2.1 billion, down by $161 million from fiscal 2012 spending and $269 million from what is expected in the fiscal 2013 budget, according to DOE budget figures.

Meanwhile, the nuclear agency would receive $7.9 billion for maintenance of a safe, secure and reliable nuclear arsenal. That is $654 million more than provided in fiscal 2012, and $311 million more than anticipated in fiscal 2013.

The Center for Public Integrity reported before last week’s federal budget rollout that reduced nonproliferation funding was proposed primarily to allow more money to flow into nuclear arms modernization projects.

“Is it true? I don’t know if anyone in the administration will admit it, but it certainly seems like it might be true,” Luongo told Global Security Newswire. “If it is it is a much bigger issue than just cuts -- it is an issue of prioritization.”

National Nuclear Security Administration and Energy Department officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the spending plans. The DOE budget document, though, says the nonproliferation funding would address a number of nuclear security priorities.

"The request funds administration priorities to develop and implement policy and technical solutions to secure or eliminate proliferation-sensitive materials; limit or prevent the spread of materials, technology, and expertise related to nuclear and radiological weapons and programs around the world; and respond to nuclear incidents," Energy said. "This budget will enable the United States to complete efforts to secure the most vulnerable nuclear materials by December 2013."

Luongo's organization highlighted reductions to three NNSA programs -- the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation, and Nonproliferation and International Security.

Global Threat Reduction Initiative operations are intended to secure or relocate vulnerable nuclear materials in foreign nations. The agency  announced earlier this month that it had removed all weapon-grade uranium from 10 countries, most recently the Czech Republic, over the last four years.

The program would receive $424.5 million in the next budget, a nearly $79 million reduction from fiscal 2012 and more than $76 million below this year’s expected financing. A senior NNSA official last week said the cut reflects large funding levels in previous years and progress toward meeting Obama’s nuclear materials security goal.

“That really reflects a success because there was significant funding budgeted in [fiscal 2012] and [fiscal 2013] to really front load the efforts under the four-year plan,” NNSA Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Andrew Bieniawski told reporters. “We are at the end of that four-year effort … so you would expect a reduction in GTRI because of the significant increases it had in” fiscal 2012 and fiscal 2013.

Fiscal 2014 appropriations would provide support for the program's cumulative efforts to close or convert of 92 foreign nuclear reactors powered by highly enriched uranium, extract nearly 5 tons of vulnerable nuclear materials, and defend 1,708 structures that hold sensitive materials, the Energy Department budget states.

One nuclear security specialist argued that it is too early to wind down support for the GTRI program.

"While the administration has achieved a great deal over the past four years ... by NNSA's own admission there is more material to remove, reactors to convert and/or shut down, and buildings with radiological and nuclear material to protect," Kingston Reif, of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, said by e-mail on Thursday. "As recently as two years ago NNSA gave no indications that it was planning to significantly reduce the scope of its work. ... It's difficult to escape the conclusion that weapons programs are being prioritized over the nuclear and radiological material security and nonproliferation budget."

Spending for the agency’s International Material Protection and Cooperation initiative, which aims to strengthen protections for nuclear materials in other countries and to detect illicit movement of such substances, would drop from $573 million in fiscal 2013 to $370 million in the next budget.

The Nonproliferation and International Security account would go from $155 million in this budget to $142 million in fiscal 2014.

There would be nearly $220 million less for Fissile Materials Disposition, reflecting the administration’s intent to slow down and eventually possibly scrap construction of an Energy Department plant that would convert weapon-usable plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel.

Money for NNSA Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation research and development would land at $389 million, up by $40 million from two years ago but a reduction of nearly $70 million from what is planned in the current fiscal year.

Three State Department initiatives -- the Nonproliferation and Disarmament Fund, Export Control and Related Security, and Global Threat Reduction -- would in total see a drop from $167.4 million in spending under this budget to $147.5 million in the next funding plan, the PGS analysis says.

The State Department did not respond by press time on Thursday to requests for comment.

The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program managed by the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency is aiming for a funding boost from $519.1 million to $528.5 million.

The project was established 20 years ago to secure or eliminate nuclear weapons and other unconventional threats in the former Soviet Union. It has since expanded into Africa and other regions.

Funding shifts within the overall initiative -- including a $44.5 million reduction to the Proliferation Prevention line item -- demonstrate a rebalancing of spending rather than cuts, Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Monica Matoush said.

“The FY14 requested funding levels reflect a return to previous plans,” she told GSN by e-mail.  "The FY13 and FY14 budget requests for Cooperative Threat Reduction responded to changes in global WMD threats and remain consistent with the president's emphasis on biological threat reduction and securing vulnerable nuclear material around the world.”

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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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