Senior Lawmakers Question Obama’s Nuclear Security Goal

(Mar. 11) -A cask of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium is prepared for removal from Kazakhstan. Two ranking U.S. lawmakers yesterday expressed doubt that federal agencies can meet President Barack Obama's goal of securing all loose nuclear material within four years (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).
(Mar. 11) -A cask of Russian-origin highly enriched uranium is prepared for removal from Kazakhstan. Two ranking U.S. lawmakers yesterday expressed doubt that federal agencies can meet President Barack Obama's goal of securing all loose nuclear material within four years (U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration photo).

WASHINGTON -- Leaders of a key congressional panel yesterday expressed skepticism that the U.S. government would be able to meet President Barack Obama's goal of securing all of the world's loose nuclear material within four years (see GSN, Feb. 26).

"Securing all vulnerable nuclear material is a laudable goal that this committee supports," House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee Vice Chairman Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.) said in his opening statement during a hearing on the administration's nuclear nonproliferation efforts.

However, the "magnitude of the [funding] increase" for the programs involved -- about $550 million in total -- raises concerns over whether those dollars can be "effectively executed" in fiscal 2011, according to Pastor, who is overseeing the panel's work on the budget request.

He warned the administration against "overpromising on execution."

Ranking subcommittee Republican Rodney Frelinghuysen also dubbed the president's four-year objective "laudable" but said it is "not well defined and I'm worried about implementation."

The New Jersey lawmaker, whose panel has the first say on the president's request for the nuclear-security budget, derided the possible cost involved in the effort.

"My constituents are increasingly concerned about the country's growing budget deficit and are calling for budget cuts, not budget increases," Frelinghuysen said.

Loose nuclear material typically refers to warheads, highly enriched uranium or plutonium and even expertise from the former Soviet Union and beyond that could fall into the hands of rogue nations or nonstate actors. How much is out there is impossible to know, according to experts.

Controlling that vulnerability is a tenet of the nonproliferation agenda Obama laid out last spring in a speech in Prague. The White House has invited leaders from more than 40 nations to Washington next month for a summit on nuclear security.

The president's fiscal 2011 budget request for the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation portfolio -- which encompasses a number of programs within the National Nuclear Security Administration designed to stop the spread of nuclear materials -- is roughly $2.7 billion, an increase of nearly 26 percent over the present budget cycle.

The agency, a semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department, maintains the country's nuclear stockpile and conducts nonproliferation activities around the globe.

About $560 million would go toward the Global Threat Reduction Initiative -- an increase of 68 percent over fiscal 2010 -- to remove and secure "high-priority" vulnerable nuclear material around the world and accelerate conversions of highly enriched uranium fueled research reactors to use low-enriched uranium. The program also aims to deny terrorists access to nuclear and radiological material at civilian sites worldwide.

The budget request also includes $590 million for the International Material Protection and Cooperation program, an increase of $18 million. The effort is designed to enhance the security of vulnerable nuclear stockpiles and weapon-usable nuclear material in "countries of concern" and to improve the ability to detect the illicit trafficking of those resources, according to an agency fact sheet.

Total funding for securing loose nuclear materials within those two programs and the Defense Department's Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative would rise by $320 million in fiscal 2011, according to an analysis released this week by the nongovernmental Partnership for Global Security.

The total price tag for meeting the president's goal was not immediately known.

The proposed spending plan reflects the "initial investment" in that effort, NNSA nonproliferation chief Steven Black told lawmakers yesterday.

Black said the nonproliferation wing is "keenly aware of the requirement to spend every dollar wisely" and that the nuclear agency has a "very specific work scope identified already" for both the threat reduction and material protection efforts in fiscal 2011.

Through the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the agency wants to convert seven additional research reactors from using weapon-usable highly enriched uranium fuel to low-enriched uranium and remove an additional 530 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from such countries as South Africa, Mexico, Serbia, Ukraine and Belarus.

"We cannot parachute into a country in the middle of the night and send special ops to secure this material," Black told the panel.

Pastor said "significant portions" of the nuclear security effort depend on finalizing cooperative agreements with other nations -- "something that is notoriously difficult to firmly nail down in time."

Black also said that the Material Protection Control and Accounting program -- which works to consolidate nuclear material in fewer sites and provides security upgrades for such facilities through the international protection effort -- has seven of the 10 agreements called for in the next budget cycle in hand.

The agency is "guardedly optimistic" it will reach the remaining three agreements by the end of the year, according to Black. Two are in South Africa and the third is in Ukraine.

The nonproliferation chief told lawmakers that the NNSA "personnel vacancy rate" has shrunk from 17 percent at this time last year to 5 percent today, which will help the agency manage its workload.

The nuclear agency also has modified its contracting process that will allow it to execute procurement actions "fairly quickly" and make use of small businesses to help carry out fuel removals and perform feasibility studies for research reactor conversions, according to Black.

"Without overpromising, we do believe we can effectively spend the [fiscal 2011] funds that we're requesting of you," he said.

March 12, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- Leaders of a key congressional panel yesterday expressed skepticism that the U.S. government would be able to meet President Barack Obama's goal of securing all of the world's loose nuclear material within four years (see GSN, Feb. 26).