Research: Commentary

Funding Nuclear Security: Finding the Money

Talking Points Memo Cafe, April 14, 2011 | Article

By William D. Hartung

A year ago this week, the Obama administration brought together 47 world leaders in Washington - the largest such gathering since the founding conference of the United Nations in 1945 - for a Nuclear Security Summit designed to promote practices and create programs to prevent nuclear terrorism. The summit was in line with President Obama's campaign promise to take action to secure or dismantle all "loose" nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials worldwide within four years time.

At the time of the summit, right-wing pundits like Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post tried to dismiss it as just another feel-good talkfest, signifying nothing in particular. But a new report by the Arms Control Association and the Partnership for Global Security proves Krauthammer and his cohorts wrong by demonstrating that the summit has in fact served as a catalyst for concrete action to diminish the chances that a terrorist organization will ever get its hands on a nuclear weapon or nuclear bomb-making materials.

The following commitments that have been fulfilled since the April 2010 summit:
• Serbia and Chile have given up their highly enriched uranium.
• Kazakhstan secured 775 nuclear bombs-worth of plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
• Ukraine removed more than half of its highly enriched uranium and agreed to get rid of the rest by 2012.
• Russia ended its plutonium production.

According to the new report roughly 60 percent of the national commitments made at the 2010 summit have been completed, with another 30 percent well along.
Much more needs to be done, but without the Obama administration's leadership the considerable achievements of the past year would not have happened.

Going forward, one essential ingredient for success is adequate funding. But as the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation has pointed out, the year-long continuing resolution passed by the House of Representatives in February cut funding for critically important nuclear nonproliferation programs of the kind that have helped accomplish the successes cited above by nearly $650 million, compared to the administration's request. Now that the House and Senate have finally reached a deal to finance the government for the rest of this fiscal year, the ultimate level of funding for these key nonproliferation programs is up in the air.

But even under the tight budget caps imposed under the latest funding agreement, Congress and the National Nuclear Security Administration would still have room to fully fund effective nonproliferation efforts if they cut back on questionable activities such as the high-cost, high-risk and highly impractical mixed-oxide (MOX) production facility being built in Savannah River, South Carolina. The plant is meant to take weapons grade plutonium and mix it with enriched uranium to create fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. But according to a front page article in today's New York Times, the price of the project has jumped to nearly $5 billion -- over three times the original estimate. Furthermore, the article notes, "critics question its health risks and its ability to keep the plutonium out of terrorists' hands." In short, the project will increase the risks of proliferation in the name of nonproliferation! That's one of the reasons the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability (ANA) has called for an end to all funding for the MOX facility. And it's just one of nine overpriced and and in some cases unnecessary programs within the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration - the agency charged with managing the nation's nuclear weapons complex -- that ANA identifies in a new report on the subject. These nine programs alone cost an estimated $100 billion.

In short, even in tight budgetary times, there's plenty of room to fund real nonproliferation efforts without busting the budget.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy and the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (Nation Books, 2011).

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