Since the start of his presidency, Barack Obama has been clear that one of his major goals was to secure nuclear weapons and materials. As recently as March, at the Nuclear Security Summit in Holland, the president declared: “It is important for us not to relax but rather accelerate our efforts over the next two years.”
Instead, to little notice, the administration has decided to spend money at an even greater rate than before to refurbish and modernize nuclear weapons while slashing the amount it is spending to prevent terrorists from getting or making their own.
According to a new analysis of nuclear security spending by a bipartisan group at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the administration in its 2015 budget chose to cut nuclear nonproliferation programs in the Energy Department by $399 million while increasing spending on nuclear weapons by $534 million.
In addition, despite missing a self-imposed deadline of April 2013 for ensuring that nuclear materials were safe from terrorists across the globe, the White House at about the same time rejected a confidential Energy Department-sponsored plan to accelerate those efforts by 2016, the year Obama is slated to convene a fourth international summit on the issue.
The proposal, which appears in a May 2013 report obtained recently by the Center for Public Integrity, was intended to address the huge amount of unfinished work in the Obama administration’s nonproliferation plan. It said that more than two tons of portable, easily weaponized uranium were still being held in scores of nuclear research reactors while the world’s supply of another nuclear explosive, plutonium, was growing at a rate of about 740 bombs’ worth a year.
The 12-page report in 2013 called for an acceleration of efforts to lock down or eliminate more of these dangerous materials — as well as radioactive isotopes that could be used in bombs that could contaminate large urban areas. But after an interagency struggle that climaxed at a Cabinet-level meeting in January, the White House produced a 2015 budget proposal that slighted many of the report’s key recommendations and reduced spending on nonproliferation programs.
It did so with the approval of Sylvia Burwell, director of the Office of Management and Budget, officials and experts say, after officials decided to prioritize spending on the refurbishment and modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
Matthew Bunn, a former White House official and one of the authors of the Kennedy School of Government analysis, described the internal administration discussions this way: “Should they provide more money for nonproliferation, or more money for weapons? It’s clear that weapons won that debate.”
Laura Holgate, the White House senior director for weapons-of-mass-destruction terrorism, did not dispute the budget analysis, but she said the administration’s commitment to nuclear security “remains strong and unparalleled” and the reductions in nonproliferation spending reflected the achievement of many of President Obama’s goals.
“The president’s nonproliferation and nuclear security priorities were protected,” she wrote in an email. “The decreased budget reflects natural and predictable declines based on project completion.”
The report describing urgent unfinished business in nuclear security was prepared by the staff of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, part of the National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-independent arm of the Energy Department. The NNSA also oversees the production of nuclear warheads, so internal budget skirmishes between those who favor nonproliferation and those who seek more spending on the nuclear arsenal are frequent.
For the current year, fiscal 2014, Congress authorized $1.95 billion in spending by the NNSA on nonproliferation programs. The White House budget for 2015 proposes $1.56 billion — a 20 percent reduction.
In fiscal 2010, NNSA spending on nuclear weapons was about three times as high as for nonproliferation. Under the proposed White House budget, weapons spending would outstrip nonproliferation spending by over five-to-one—$8.3 billion to $1.56 billion.
The NNSA report found that because of the administration’s four-year effort, “the world today is unquestionably more secure from the threat of nuclear terrorism than it was four years ago.” But, the report added, there are “still serious threats that require urgent attention.”
“Experts continue to believe that terrorists are seeking a nuclear or radiological weapon — either by making one or stealing one,” the NNSA report says. “A handful of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium the size of a grapefruit is all that is needed to make a nuclear bomb with the potential to kill hundreds of thousands of people. A small capsule of cesium the size of a pencil is enough for a radiological ‘dirty bomb’ that could contaminate an entire city and result in billions of dollars in economic devastation.”
To blunt these threats, the NNSA report — marked “For Official Use Only” — sought to set the following ambitious new goals, to be achieved by December 2016:
“Despite President Obama’s well-deserved reputation as an advocate for nuclear security, the Obama administration has been cutting nuclear security programs year after year for most of its term in office,” wrote Bunn, a Harvard professor; William Tobey, deputy administrator for the NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation office during the Bush administration; and Nickolas Roth, a Harvard researcher, in their 32-page analysis.
In addition, the Harvard analysis anticipates reduced spending on nonproliferation programs in the State and Defense departments, based on congressional reports and briefing notes, discussions with agency officials and internal documents, including a copy the NNSA report — which the Center for Public Integrity obtained separately.