Bush reverses course, supports funding boost for nonproliferation efforts

In “Improving U.S.-Russian Nuclear Cooperation” (Issues, Fall 2001), I highlighted the misguided decision of President Bush to propose significant funding reductions for U.S.-Russian nuclear nonproliferation cooperation programs and raised concerns about the lack of attention to this work at high levels of the U.S. and Russian governments. For most of last year, the administration refused to reconsider its position, stating that it was conducting its own evaluation. Even in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the administration requested no additional funds to lock up weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the former Soviet Union (FSU). But faced with the growing specter of WMD-armed terrorists and strong congressional support for controlling this danger, the Bush administration has now made a 180-degree turn and embraced this agenda in its latest budget.

Known generally as the Nunn-Lugar program, these nonproliferation activities are focused on improving the security of the remaining nuclear, chemical, and biological arsenals of Russia and other post-Soviet states. In April 2001, the Bush budget proposed cutting $100 million from Department of Energy (DOE) programs focused on reducing U.S.-Russian nuclear material security, disposition, and safety efforts: activities at the heart of the effort to control potentially “loose nukes” in the FSU. However, during the regular appropriations process last year, Congress bucked the administration and restored much of the proposed cut. Then, after the terrorist attacks, Congress included in a $40 billion emergency appropriation an additional $120 million for nuclear material control, $15 million for alternative employment for weapons scientists, and $10 million for improving the safety and security of Soviet-era nuclear power reactors and facilities. The initiative for this new money came solely from the Congress. When the administration notified Congress of its priorities for this funding, it did not designate any of the funds for WMD security activities in Russia or the FSU, despite the anthrax attacks against Congress and the emerging danger of potentially nuclear-armed terrorists.

Obviously recognizing the need to correct its course after the demonstration of congressional resolve, the White House announced in late December that it would seek major increases for Nunn-Lugar activities. In the fiscal year 2003 budget, the administration has requested overall increases for these activities when compared to its prior year budget request, and the increases in some areas are quite substantial. However, in other areas, program budgets would be funded below the final congressionally appropriated level for last year.

For DOE, approximately $770 million is requested for WMD nonproliferation efforts in the FSU, about 17 percent more than the total fiscal year 2002 congressional appropriation for these programs, including the supplemental funding. However, this number is somewhat deceiving, because it includes $49 million in a funding transfer from the Department of Defense (DOD) for a project to eliminate weapons-grade plutonium production in Russia and a significant increase for plutonium disposition facility construction in the United States. Still, significant increases were requested in efforts to dispose of excess plutonium in Russia, improve FSU export controls, and facilitate the dismantlement of nuclear warheads. Key programs, such as those designed to improve security for nuclear material and naval nuclear warheads and create peaceful employment opportunities for weapon scientists, would be funded below last year’s final appropriation. But this year, these programs are riding a wave of increased funding from the supplemental appropriation, and government officials in charge must prove that they can effectively use substantially increased future funding by significantly accelerating their progress.

At DOD, the president has requested a budget increase of about 4 percent to $417 million. Most of the major increases are in nuclear weapon transportation security, chemical weapon destruction, and biological weapon proliferation prevention. These are necessary increases, though the objectives for some of the funding are not very clear at this point.

The administration’s budgetary about-face on nonproliferation cooperation with Russia is welcome. But the critical issue in the coming year is how well officials in the key programs will actually use the financial windfall from last year to ramp up progress and decrease the timelines for completion of their work. More than half of the bomb-grade materials outside of weapons in Russia still remain inadequately secured, and vulnerable storage facilities for some key categories of warheads have been upgraded at a snail’s pace. Both of these efforts have timelines for completion that extend for a decade or more. In this new world, that time frame is unacceptable. But political resources as well as financial ones are required to make this process move more quickly and effectively. Although the budget logjam seems to have been broken, the political blockages remain to be tackled.