Blog Post - Nuclear Security Matters

The Russian Tie We Can't Cut

Aug. 12, 2014

“I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” So said President Obama last March, weighing the danger of nuclear terrorism against that of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Yet our research shows that his administration proposes cutting the amount of money spent on an array of programs to secure nuclear bomb materials around the world and keep them out of terrorists’ hands — to $555 million next year from $700 million in fiscal 2014. And in both houses of Congress, there are efforts to legislate a suspension of nuclear security cooperation with Russia.

None of this makes sense, given the growing power of terrorist movements in the Middle East, the consequences if such terrorists made a crude nuclear bomb, and how modest the price of nuclear security has been — never more than two out of every $1,000 in America’s defense budget. Slowing these efforts would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. And cutting off cooperation now, when urgent tasks to improve nuclear security remain, would only add nuclear security to the list of victims of Russian aggression.

This cooperation is not a favor to Russia. It is an investment in vital American security interests. Yet under the president’s proposed 2015 budget, funding for removing nuclear materials from vulnerable locations would be halved, to $58 million from $115 million, allowing fewer such removals than in any year in the past decade. Converting research reactors from high-enriched to low-enriched uranium fuel would be extended five more years; deploying border equipment to detect smuggling would be delayed; work to better protect sites where radiological material (useful for dirty bombs) is stored could slow so much that the task wouldn’t be finished until 2074.

American efforts abroad to secure nuclear weapons and materials remain one of the few policy areas with deep bipartisan support. They began at the urging of Senators Sam Nunn of Georgia, a Democrat, and Richard Lugar of Indiana, a Republican, under President George Bush, as the Soviet Union crumbled a quarter-century ago. President Bill Clinton deepened cooperation with Russia, establishing the current range of programs. After 9/11, President George W. Bush doubled their total budget.

President Obama has emphasized the concept of nuclear security; in 2010 he hosted a Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, and he has attended two more — in Seoul in 2012 and Amsterdam last March.

Guarding Russia’s stockpile remains a key concern, but the program’s scope now also includes work with many other countries. Twenty-six nations have been helped either to reduce the enrichment level of uranium stocks that could have become bomb fuel, or to verify the shutdown of reactors fueled by high-enriched uranium. A key achievement of the last Nuclear Security Summit was Japan’s decision to dispose of hundreds of pounds of high-enriched uranium and plutonium. Storage sites that once had gaping holes in their fences and lacked detectors to sound an alarm if someone was smuggling out plutonium now hold the material in steel vaults with security cameras and detectors; they also require identification cards and passwords for workers to pass through forbidding security doors.

For two decades, one of every 10 light bulbs in America has been powered by uranium from dismantled Russian nuclear bombs. And the number of countries with a kilogram or more of highly enriched uranium has been halved.

Despite these successes, the nuclear terrorism threat remains urgent. Weapons-usable material was seized from criminals in 2003, 2006, 2010 and 2011, and serious nuclear security breaches occurred in 2007 and 2012. Some officials and politicians say decreased funding shows that the job is proceeding well enough. But just last year, the Obama administration was projecting a need to spend $100 million more than it now seeks.

As it considers the president’s budget, Congress should adopt a basic principle: A scarcity of funds should not delay any program that could substantially reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism. Congress should restore at least $100 million of the proposed cuts, and drop its effort to cut off nuclear security work in Russia. It should also consider targeted increases for other efforts to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. The administration, too, must act. Congress should require that the president submit a strategic plan to rapidly achieve effective and sustainable nuclear security for all nuclear weapons and weapons-usable material worldwide. This must include a plan for working with Russia. And the administration should increase funding for nuclear security in 2016.

In his closing statement at the Nuclear Security Summit in The Hague, President Obama said, “It is important for us not to relax, but rather accelerate our efforts over the next two years,” before the next such meeting. He was right. His budgets must match his words.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: The Russian Tie We Can't Cut.” Nuclear Security Matters, August 12, 2014,