The Other Nuclear Threat

03/16/2011 03:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Earlier this week Walter Pincus of the Washington Post wrote a critical essay in which he said that "The horrific earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan last week lead me to this question: Is it not time to talk realistically about the $200 billion we plan to spend over the next decade on strategic nuclear weapons and their delivery vehicles?" In doing so, he noted that the evacuations now going on in Japan would pale in comparison to what would be necessary if just one 100 kiloton nuclear bomb were to go off near a major city -- not to mention the immediate deaths caused by the bomb, which could reach into the hundreds of thousands. Pincus goes on to note that even under the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty - a welcome but modest step towards ridding the world of the nuclear danger - the United States will have over 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads, many of them more than 100 kilotons in explosive power.

Pincus then gets to the heart of the matter when he asks where the targets for these weapons are supposed to be. He notes that our nuclear submarine force alone - in its new proposed configuration in which the subs would have "only" 16 missile-launching tubes instead of the current 20 - could sustain the capability to have 320 separate warheads ready to fire at any one time. And that doesn't count land-based missiles or nuclear-capable bombers. We are not at war - or even a Cold War - with either Russia or China (and China, in any case, has only about 20 long-range missiles that can reach the United States). Iran has no nuclear weapons yet, and North Korea may have six or eight; Al Qaeda is not a nuclear power, and maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal will have no influence on whether or not it can acquire or use a nuclear bomb.

America has another nuclear weapons problem, one that Pincus didn't bring up in his essay. Maintaining large nuclear stockpiles always poses a risk that they will some day be used, but the most urgent nuclear threat is not from state-to-state warfare but from the danger that a bomb or bomb-making materials might fall into the hands of terrorists. Unbelievably, the Congress is poised to cut the programs that actually can make a difference in whether Al Qaeda gets the bomb.

Many of the most crucial programs in this regard are housed in the budget of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Taken together with parallel initiatives in the Pentagon budget, these programs represent the most effective investment dollar-for-dollar of any national security program in the federal budget. As Ken Brill notes in his recent piece in Politico, NNSA programs secured 800 bombs worth of nuclear material in 2010 alone; executed the largest single removal of highly-enriched uranium in history, 450 kilograms from Poland; and, through its Global Threat Reduction Initiative, eliminated enriched uranium from six countries.

Despite these achievements - and the dire threat they are designed to address - the House's stopgap budget proposal provides over $600 million less for NNSA nonproliferation programs than the Obama administration requested, a cut of over 20%. These funds must be restored. Key players in making this happen should include Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), who heads the committee with jurisdiction over these programs in the House; and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN, the ranking Republican on the parallel subcommittee in the Senate. These programs have historically received bipartisan support. At a time when voters are frustrated that there is not more cooperation on Capitol Hill, fully funding key nuclear nonproliferation programs is an excellent place to start.

William D. Hartung is the author of Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military-Industrial Complex (