Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

US Budget Request Shows Eroding Focus on Nuclear Security

| Mar. 25, 2014

In his closing remarks at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, President Obama emphasized the importance of accelerating nuclear security efforts over the next two years. His proposed federal budget, however, sends a different message.

Days before President Obama left for The Hague to attend the third nuclear security summit, his administration released a fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget proposal that would cut the programs primarily responsible for helping other countries improve security for nuclear material -- the Global Threat Reduction Initiative (GTRI) and International Material Protection and Cooperation (IMPC) -- by more than 20%. Apparently, nuclear security advocates are not winning the budget arguments within the Obama administration.

The U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) may face up to $400 million in budget cuts if President Obama's proposed 2015 budget is approved. (NNSA photo)

Overall, the administration’s budget would cut nonproliferation programs at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) by almost $400 million, while increasing the budget for NNSA’s nuclear weapons programs by over $500 million.  Of course, the biggest nonproliferation cuts are in the plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel project for plutonium disposition, where ballooning life-cycle cost estimates (now in the range of $30 billion) have led the administration to propose putting the project in cold standby while the search for alternatives continues.[i]  But there are painful cuts to the very nuclear security programs on the summit agenda as well.

Indeed, the proposed cuts this year are part of an ongoing downward spiral for nuclear security budgets. Since 2011, funding requests for these programs have declined by more than 40%. The Obama administration requested more than $889 million for these programs for fiscal year 2011, but this year’s request is only $533,963.

The administration argues these budget cuts are simply the result of the work being finished – the four-year effort to secure vulnerable nuclear material was four-year effort “successfully completed,” NNSA says.[ii]  But as we describe in detail in our recent report on nuclear security progress and remaining gaps, President Obama’s original goal of securing “all” vulnerable nuclear material has certainly not been accomplished. There’s a great deal more to do, as the administration itself emphasizes – but they propose to spend much less to do it.  The proposed budgets for both GTRI and INMPC are much less than the administration projected they would need for these efforts last year, and nothing has gotten any cheaper since then.  Indeed, this year’s budget request calls for spending $200 million less on nuclear security over the next four years than projected in last year’s budget.  These programs are having to make do with less – and if these proposals are accepted, nuclear security progress will be slowed.

Under the administration’s approach, GTRI’s goal of helping to convert or shut down 200 research reactors fueled with highly enriched uranium (HEU) would slip five years – from 2030 to 2035 – having already slipped ten years, from 2020. That is 15 more years that weapons-usable nuclear material will continue to be used – often in inadequately protected facilities.  Some of this is from delays in developing high-density fuels – but some is from budget cuts as well.

Similarly, GTRI’s target of helping with security upgrades at 8,500 facilities around the world with dangerous radiological sources – already delayed by 20 years to 2044 by last year’s budget cuts -- seems likely to be abandoned. The FY15 budget states that the “previous end date of 2044 is now TBD pending a review of GTRI’s protect program examining current inventory, scoping, budgeting and project planning processes that will maximize resources and decrease the program’s completion timeline.”

Additionally, for both the HEU reactor conversion effort and nuclear and radiological material removal, the budget warns that “other planned work is deferred to future years,” without providing details.

So what do these delays mean? They mean the Obama administration is letting inadequate budgets slow progress in reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. 

Senior members of both the Senate and the House already complained about budget cuts last year, before this new round was proposed.   The Senate Energy and Water Committee said it was “frustrated by NNSA's failure to provide sufficient funding” to meet its target dates, and encouraged NNSA “to provide sufficient funding in the outyears to avoid any further delays.” Similarly, the ranking Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee and the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, , Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), argued that “[t]he Administration has deferred each of the three program goals for GTRI over the last several budgets,” complaining of a “rapid slide to the right of the schedule.”

While President Obama has said nuclear terrorism was the greatest threat to US national security and is the thing that keeps him up at night, he has not fully reflected that concern in his budget allocations.  It will be up to Congress – in an extremely difficult budget year – to begin to correct these budget priorities.

[i] Page 543 of DOE’s budget request states: Due to increases, with a total lifecycle cost of approximately $30 billion the MOX fuel approach is not viable within the available resources.

[ii] Page 452 of DOE’s budget request states: Nuclear and Radiological Material Removal: The President Obama Four Year Initiative to lead an effort to secure the most vulnerable nuclear material by the end of 2013 was successfully completed. 

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Roth, Nickolas.US Budget Request Shows Eroding Focus on Nuclear Security.” Nuclear Security Matters, March 25, 2014, https://nuclearsecuritymatters.belfercenter.org/publication/us-budget-request-shows-eroding-focus-nuclear-security.