Recent years have seen an erosion of congressional expertise and experience on preventing nuclear terrorism

Recent years have seen an erosion of congressional expertise and experience on preventing nuclear terrorism Brandon Bourdages / Shutterstock

Our Efforts to Prevent Nuclear Terror Are Shrinking. The Threat Is Not.

Five ideas to help Congress reinvigorate the crucial pursuit of nuclear security.

Few have done more to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and materials than the late Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, who passed away in April. Our current generation of lawmakers must not take the legacy of bipartisan leadership he left behind for granted – it is in grave danger.

Despite progress made at four Nuclear Security Summits between 2010 and 2016 to address the existential threat of nuclear terrorism, a new report from Harvard University’s Managing the Atom Project warns that “High-level political attention to nuclear security and overcoming obstacles has largely faded, international mechanisms for fostering nuclear security action and cooperation have not managed to fill the gap created by the absence of nuclear security summits, and political disputes continue to impede efforts to sustain or expand cooperation in crucial areas.”

Recent years have seen an erosion of congressional expertise and experience on preventing nuclear terrorism, while successive administrations have proposed to shrink spending on core nuclear material security and nonproliferation programs. Last July, a first-ever study assessed congressional attitudes on nuclear security. Undertaken by the Arms Control Association and Partnership for a Secure America, the study found that effective congressional oversight of this issue has been constrained in recent years by numerous obstacles, including limited institutional knowledge, misunderstanding of the subject, skepticism of mission need, competing priorities, and funding constraints. 

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Yet historically, Congress has been the source of bipartisan innovation and the key supporter of efforts to advance global nuclear security. Senator Lugar, along with Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Georgia, embodied this reality as the architects of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which from 1992 to 2012 deactivated 7,500 nuclear warheads and 2,000 intercontinental ballistic missiles in Russia and the states of the former Soviet Union. Even in recent years, bipartisan leaders like Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, and Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, have championed sizable funding increases for nuclear security programs.

But the global nuclear security enterprise is at a critical crossroads. While the worldwide use of nuclear and radiological materials has grown, including in unstable regions of the world, and emerging technologies such as additive manufacturing and offensive cyber tools pose new challenges, the issue of nuclear security has all but faded from the U.S. national conversation. As these materials become more widespread, they will be vulnerable to criminal and terrorist organizations without sufficient security efforts.

Unfortunately, for the third year in a row, the Trump administration is proposing to reduce funding for core U.S. nuclear security and nonproliferation programs at the semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration.

In addition, the Los Angeles Times recently found that the administration has scaled back or ended programs at the Department of Homeland Security designed to combat chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats.

That’s why we and 30 other former high-ranking government officials representing both political parties, including Sen. Lugar, signed a statement earlier this year urging immediate Congressional action to step up efforts to secure nuclear and radiological materials globally to prevent any possibility of a nuclear terrorist attack. We recommend these five courses of action:

  1. The Office of Management and Budget should be required to prepare an annual report summarizing the aggregate U.S. budget for nuclear security and non-proliferation programs;
  2. A blue ribbon, bipartisan congressional commission should be established to develop a comprehensive strategy to prevent, counter, and respond to nuclear and radiological terrorism;
  3. A program of activities should be designed to prevent nuclear theft and trafficking in North Korea;
  4. Periodic hearings should be held with government and non-governmental nuclear security experts; and
  5. A sustained effort should be pursued to promote a mandatory international system of monitoring, reporting, and accountability in all countries with nuclear and radiological materials and the facilities that house them.

Some members of Congress are heeding the call.

For example, we applaud Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., and Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tennessee, for recently introducing the “Nuclear Security and Nonproliferation Accounting Act,” [link] which would direct the Government Accountability Office to submit annual reports on the budget for international and domestic nuclear security programs of the United States. Programs to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism are spread throughout the government; a consolidated summary would offer a clear picture of gaps and overlaps.

As the nation continues to mourn the passing of a statesman who made crucial contributions to reducing nuclear threats, it is the responsibility of his successors in Congress to sustain and build on the legacy they have inherited.