Terrorists are still seeking nuclear and radiological materials to carry out appalling acts of terror. The effort to lock down these materials around the world and keep them out of terrorist hands is crucial to U.S. national security and has long had bipartisan support. The Bush administration greatly expanded nuclear security programs, and President Obama gathered leaders from around the world for an unprecedented nuclear security summit, gaining agreement on the goal of securing all vulnerable nuclear material worldwide within four years.
But now, House appropriators, in their efforts to reduce the yawning gap in the federal budget, have proposed to cut over $600 million from the request for these nonproliferation programs. These are programs that are removing highly enriched uranium (HEU) - the easiest material in the world for terrorists to use to make a nuclear bomb - from inadequately secured sites, beefing up security and accounting measures at scores of locations around the world, and installing detectors to improve the chances that we might be able to detect smuggled nuclear or radiological material before it was too late.
Just last year, these programs removed the last HEU from Serbia, completing a years-long effort. The Obama administration secured pledges from Ukraine and Belarus to eliminate all the HEU on their soil, and the first loads of Ukraine's HEU have already been shipped. The WikiLeaks cables reveal an episode in which officials in Yemen - home of al Qaeda's most active regional branch - warned that a deadly radioactive source was sitting in building whose only guard had left and whose sole security camera had long been broken. These programs provide the practical means to deal with such threats.
Slowing these efforts down by cutting their budgets would be a serious mistake, undermining U.S. national security. Of course, responsible officials would do their best to allocate money to keep the highest priority initiatives moving forward. But these cuts would mean putting off several projects to convert nuclear reactors from HEU to low-enriched uranium that cannot be used to make a nuclear bomb; leaving hundreds of unwanted radiological sources in the United States un-collected; and postponing the day when dozens of ports and border crossings would be able to detect smuggled bomb material.
Ironically, adopting these cuts would actually cost the government more money in the long run, because temporary security measures will be necessary for highly enriched reactors and dangerous radiological sources that remain unaddressed, and project delays will boost prices. Moreover, continuing to run the government under temporary spending measures will limit program's ability to plan in advance and therefore get the best rates from private sector suppliers.
The House appropriators have said that they will not cut spending on national security. But they have unwisely concluded that nuclear security programs are not in that protected category. In fact, these programs offer some of the most cost-effective national security investments to be found anywhere in the federal government.
Both parties and both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue must work together to ensure that efforts to lock down nuclear and radiological materials are not slowed by lack of funds. Even if fully funded, cooperative nonproliferation efforts amount to far less than 1 percent of U.S. national security spending. The Obama administration needs to make clear to Congress that these programs are a top national security priority and press to receive its funding request. The House and the Senate need to work together to put together a funding bill that protects these vital programs. The clock is ticking.
Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and author of Securing the Bomb 2010, served in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the Clinton administration. William Tobey, a senior fellow at the Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, was Deputy Administrator for Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation in the George W. Bush administration, and served on the National Security Council staff for the last three Republican presidents.