The 2016 Presidential Candidates on Nuclear Issues

With implementation day for the Iran nuclear agreement around the corner, implicit nuclear threats from Russia, an expensive nuclear weapons modernization program in the U.S., striking revelations of attempted nuclear smuggling, and threats of weapons testing from North Korea, nuclear weapons policy is receiving more attention during debates on U.S. foreign policy.

Nuclear Security: How the U.S. and Russia Can Save the World

The recent tension between Russia and the United States could increase the risk of a nuclear attack, but not in the way you are thinking.

For the last 20 years, the United States and Russia have cooperated over nuclear security in efforts to secure the former Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons and materials from terrorist groups and rogue states. Programs like the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program and Megatons to Megawatts were designed to bolster security procedures, down blend highly enriched uranium for peaceful use and storage, and dismantle nuclear warheads that might otherwise have fallen into the hands of terrorists or rogue states. But now, the partnership between Russia and the United States on nuclear security is in trouble.

Reestablishing this relationship is critical to preserving global nuclear security, as Russia and the United States have the world’s largest nuclear stockpiles. Matthew Bunn, a Harvard professor at the Kennedy School who supervised a classified government study on protecting nuclear materials in Russia, explains in the New York Times that this is a critical moment in nuclear security. “There is a real danger that 20 years of U.S.-Russian cooperation to secure nuclear material will simply stop at the end of this year, and some of the gains we have made could slip away,” he said.

Angela Canterbury, the Executive Director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, expressed similar urgency on the issue: “Failing to reduce and secure nuclear weapons and materials puts all of us at risk. This is not a time for the U.S. and Russia to abandon their responsibilities to their citizens and the world.”  

While tensions over Russian expansion in Ukraine have certainly fueled the discontinuation of nuclear security cooperation, it has not been the only factor. Russia has long been frustrated by the “teacher-student” nature of the cooperation, and hope to project more independence by managing their nuclear security unilaterally.  This has led some experts to believe a new American approach is required, one that reaches out to the Russian nuclear community as true partners.  Dr. Matt Bunn again told NYT readers, “The United States needs to be actively proposing more fully equal approaches to put Russia in a position of a co-leader on nuclear security, not a state that needs help.”

The Obama administration has made strides towards salvaging the relationship. In September, Rose Gottemoeller, the senior arms control official at the State Department, led an American delegation to Moscow to address concerns of potential arms control violations. These efforts, however, so far have done little to alleviate the impasse.

Lt. Gen. Robert Gard (U.S., ret.), Chair of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s board, and Nick Roth, a research associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, describe what is needed for progress on the issue in an article earlier this year, “It will require leaders from both countries to transcend geopolitical posturing and prioritize the threat of nuclear terrorism. Moreover, it demands a new approach that makes bilateral cooperation an equal partnership.”

There are plenty of examples of continued cooperation on nuclear security, in spite of other political tensions, including the cooperation between Reagan and Gorbachev. If there was ever an issue that ought to push two rivals to cooperate, preventing nuclear terrorism has to be it.

Congress Doesn’t Show the Money for Nuclear Security

As most observers of Capitol Hill know, the appropriations process for FY 2011 has been a disaster.  The 111th Congress did not pass any of the 12 annual appropriations bills that would fund the government for the current fiscal year.  An Omnibus appropriations bill that would have combined these 12 bills into a single bill failed in the Senate during the lame duck session due to Republican opposition.  This gridlock has claimed a number of casualties, none of which is more alarming than the budget for key programs to prevent dangerous nuclear materials from falling in the hands of terrorists.    

Instead of operating through normal appropriations bills, the government is being funded by a stopgap spending bill known as a Continuing Resolution (CR).  The current CR funds most government programs at FY 2010 enacted levels through March 4, 2011.  

A notable exception to this flat funding rule is the National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) weapons activities account, one of the few programs funded at FY 2011 levels.  The CR matches the President’s FY 2011 budget request of $7 billion for NNSA, a $624 million increase over the FY 2010 appropriation.  The administration and key Senators lobbied hard for this exception as part of their effort to win Senate approval of the New START treaty.

Unfortunately, the equally essential cause of nuclear terrorism prevention didn’t receive the same special treatment – despite efforts to produce a different outcome…

In FY 2011, the Obama administration requested over $2 billion for international WMD security programs, including a $320 million increase over the FY 2010 budget in support of the global effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear materials within four years. The request includes significant increases for key threat-reduction and nonproliferation programs such as the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the International Materials Protection and Cooperation Program, and the “Nunn-Lugar” Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

But the CR only funds these programs at FY 2010 levels for the first half of FY 2011.  This is a significant setback to efforts to prevent nuclear terrorism because the overall funding request and congressional appropriations for threat reduction in FY 2010 are not enough to meet the four year goal, something to which the administration has openly admitted.  The FY 2010 request was actually less than the amount Congress appropriated in FY 2009.  

For a detailed analysis of how the budget numbers for nuclear security under the CR will impact the four year goal, I highly recommend Michelle Marchesano’s recent policy update.  Michelle notes that NNSA might be able to perform some accounting gymnastics to boost funding for NNSA’s Global Threat Reduction Initiative.  But this program is only one piece of the nuclear security puzzle.  The bottom line is that failure to correct the shortfalls in the CR would significantly hamper the administration’s ability to meet the four year goal, generally, and meet its FY 2011 nonproliferation goals, more specifically.

How did we get to this point?  Last summer, both relevant House and Senate subcommittees fully funded the President’s FY 2011 request for nuclear security despite the current economic climate and competing funding demands.  Funding for these programs was also included in the original version of the CR prepared by the House and in the Senate version of the Omnibus bill. But it was dropped in the final CR in the last days of the lame duck.

From what I can tell the omission had very little to do with the merits of securing vulnerable nuclear materials – which enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support – and almost everything to do with the failure of the omnibus and some indiscriminate across the board cuts in the final CR.  In the end, these programs suffered because they weren’t deemed important enough to be treated as individual priorities (contra NNSA’s weapons activities account).  The “anti-spending” craze that currently grips Washington no doubt created a backdrop that contributed to this outcome.

The appropriations picture moving forward remains murky.  It’s certainly not out of the question that Congress could pass a year-long CR for FY 2011.  If an extended CR contains more exceptions than the current version, there’s a good chance the nuclear security money would be added.  If not, nuclear security program managers might have to look elsewhere to meet their FY 2011 commitments, perhaps via the reallocation of funds intended for other purposes.  An additional complicating factor is that the Republican-controlled House could try to increase funding for a litany of higher-profile defense-related programs, including missile defense.  Nuclear security is not likely to be its top priority.  

The Obama administration will of course have to play an active roll in lobbying for its nuclear security budget, just as it did for the FY 2011 money for nuclear “modernization” last fall.  By all accounts the administration remains strongly committed to its nuclear security goals.  Yet it was disconcerting to read a recent GAO report outlining the many gaps in the administration’s plan, including ill-defined objectives and benchmarks.  The report also revealed that the National Security Council apparently “does not consider the 4-year time frame for securing nuclear materials worldwide to be a hard and fast deadline.”

Last fall Duyeon Kim and I noted that despite numerous successes on the nuclear security front in 2010, “even greater international financial and political support will be required to meet the four-year deadline.”  Other countries must of course do their part, but U.S. leadership is critical to this effort.  As Alex Toma and Sarah Williams rightly put it:

Compelling critical programs to operate with insufficient budgets while expecting financial and political pledges from other countries is both hypocritical and irresponsible. Congress can – and should – take responsibility for their 11th hour edits to the CR and include funding that will meet our national security needs.