In a time of great political gridlock, there is at least one issue that both parties still agree on — the urgency to confront and reduce the threat posed by terrorist groups that are actively seeking nuclear weapons.
But Congress reduced the fiscal 2011 funding for nonproliferation efforts by the significant amount of $369 million, and more recently the House slashed an additional $428 million from the president's fiscal 2012 budget request for the nonproliferation account, including $85 million for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative.
Now it is up to the Senate to reverse these cuts.
These budget cuts come on the heels of a Harvard University year-long joint study, released in June, by leading nuclear security experts in the U.S. and Russia that warned of an increasing danger that terrorists could obtain or produce nuclear explosive devices. The report concluded: "If current approaches toward eliminating the threat are not replaced with a sense of urgency and resolve, the question will become not if but when, and on what scale, the first act of nuclear terrorism occurs."
Thus far, the world has been fortunate that terrorist acts around the globe, most recently in Norway, have involved non-nuclear weapons; but we can't gamble on that luck holding.
There are only two ways that terrorists could come to possess a nuclear explosive device: buying or stealing a nuclear weapon without safety locks (an unlikely occurrence); or obtaining fissile materials, which include highly enriched uranium or plutonium. These fissile materials are the building blocks of nuclear weapons. Since production of fissile materials is a highly complex manufacturing process, terrorists are looking to buy or steal them; reducing the supply and ensuring the security of these materials are the obvious measures essential to preventing terrorists from obtaining nuclear explosive devices.
There are dozens of research reactors around the world fueled by highly enriched uranium that terrorists could use most easily to build a nuclear weapon. Other reactors use highly enriched uranium to produce isotopes for medical purposes. Many of these reactors have only minimum security, and supplying fuel to them requires transporting hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium to the reactor sites, subjecting them to attack or diversion.
The Global Threat Reduction Initiative is a key program designed to protect and reduce vulnerable nuclear materials located at civilian sites worldwide at an accelerated rate. The initiative to date, over several decades, has shut down or converted only 76 reactors to low-enriched uranium fuel, which cannot be used to make an explosive device. The current program, still at a much too leisurely pace, is designed to shut down or convert 46 more by the end of 2016 and to reach a total of 200 by 2022.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates spoke for many national security specialists in both parties when he said: "Every senior leader, when you're asked what keeps you awake at night, it's the thought of a terrorist ending up with a weapon of mass destruction, especially nuclear."
There is simply no excuse for stretching out these programs. This is dangerous.
Congress' failure to accord top priority to programs to keep fissile materials out of the hands of terrorists is highly irresponsible. We must secure loose weapons-grade nuclear material around the world and shut down or convert nuclear reactors using highly enriched uranium as soon as possible. With the Senate returned from recess, it will have an opportunity to demonstrate a greater sense of urgency and less complacency by restoring the reckless cuts in these programs made by the House budget. It makes no sense to agree on the problem but then to debilitate the solution.
The nation's security depends on it.
Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Robert G. Gard Jr., former director of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies' Center in Bologna, Italy, is chairman of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He lives in Rockville. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.