Shifting the Spotlight Away from Nonproliferation

summitBy: Cassandra Peterson

March 31st will mark the commencement of the fourth and final Nuclear Security Summit. The two-day summits began in 2010, following President Obama’s historic 2009 Prague speech, in which he pledged to work towards the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. While the last summit will likely make tangible nonproliferation progress, the president is at the same time sending the wrong message by requesting cuts to the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program.

The summits were crafted as an effort for international partners to counteract the threat of nuclear terrorism. There are a variety of multilateral treaties and working groups committed to the subject, including the UN’s 1540 Committee, but the mandate of the summits validate the idea that there much more must be done.

The lofty goal of combatting nuclear terrorism is underscored by palpable measures, with a particular focus on securing radiological materials that might be sourced for a crude nuclear – or dirty – bomb. Worldwide, there are hundreds of thousands of wayward radiological sources that may pose a potential threat to public safety, broadly including anything from Cobalt-60, which is used in medical radiotherapy, to Cesium-137, which has a variety of industrial applications.

However, Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) and weapons-grade plutonium (Pu-239) take center stage at the summits. These fissile materials fuel the physics package for nuclear weapons and remain the largest existential dilemma for countries interested in preventing terrorists from crossing the nuclear threshold.

International efforts to regulate these materials are also a good step towards limiting proliferation at the state level. Past Nuclear Security Summits have had measurable success, with thirteen countries eliminating their stores of weapons-usable materials since the events began and with multiple agreements made to advance security frameworks. The meetings renewed the emphasis on reducing civilian applications for HEU via the conversion of peaceful reactors to Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) fuel, information sharing on best practices, and heightened security measures. Each successive summit has resulted in some big steps for nonproliferation efforts.

That’s why, in the run up to the final Nuclear Security Summit, it’s a crying shame that the Fiscal Year 2017 Budget proposes cuts to NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program. The program leads US efforts in global threat reduction via stockpile stewardship, repatriating and securing nuclear materials, and, inter alia, countering the threat of nuclear terrorism. It is taking a hit of $132 million dollars, compared to the nuclear weapons program, which by contrast boasts a sizable increase in funding for modernization purposes.

The NNSA does not view the cuts as a demonstrably lower commitment to nonproliferation. At a budget briefing on Tuesday, Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation, Anne Harrington, ascribed $70 million of the loss to the troubled Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication facility in South Carolina, soon to be shut down. The remaining reductions, she claimed, will be effectively covered by leftover funding from FY 2016, which foreign partners failed to absorb. It’s all very reasonable.

Except it isn’t, at least not entirely. ISIS makes headlines practically every day. The Iran Deal, a huge nonproliferation win, was front and center all summer. Nonproliferation, and countering nuclear terrorism especially, is having a pretty good run right now in terms of public awareness. If anything, we need more nonproliferation programs to protect vulnerable sites and dangerous materials.

Instead, the majority of the NNSA’s cash flow will be directed towards rehabilitating and modifying the aging US arsenal. It’s not an unworthy cause, despite some bumps in the planning. It just seems like prefacing the very last Nuclear Security Summit by cutting Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation program spending sends the wrong message.

Rather than indicating that there’s so much more to do, the US is shifting the spotlight away.