Obama Secures Global Atomic Commitments, But Watchdog Says Nuke Safety Starts At Home

President Obama capped a string of wide-ranging global commitments aimed at reducing the threat of nuclear catastrophe this week at his high-profile summit in Washington. The president, however, could take several concrete steps here at home to improve the security of atomic materials such that they never fall into the hands of terrorists, according to a nonprofit watchdog organization with a history of following the nuclear issue.

Obama Monday and Tuesday convened a two-day gathering of the leaders of 46 nations to grapple with the need to prevent terrorists and criminals from obtaining nuclear weapons and weapons-grade materials — the largest such meeting hosted by a U.S. president since 1945.

“This evening, I can report that we have seized this opportunity, and because of the steps we’ve taken — as individual nations and as an international community — the American people will be safer and the world will be more secure,” the president announced at a press conference that closed the meeting.

Although Obama’s effort achieved several global deals — including the agreement from all participating nations to secure loose atomic materials within four years — his administration has yet to follow through on several domestic solutions to the problem, according to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

Particularly, the president’s budget proposal for the 2011 federal fiscal year would actually cut the budget for dismantling retired atomic weapons by nearly 40 years, the independent watchdog group says in a memo released during the summit.

First on POGO’s list would be for the United States to accelerate the rate by which it is “downblending” highly enriched uranium (HEU) that is no longer needed for military needs.
“Downblending involves transforming HEU into low enriched uranium (LEU), which is not a terrorist target but is usable as fuel for nuclear power plants,” POGO says.

The U.S. government has scheduled approximately 117 metric tons (MT) of HEU to be downblended, but that amount is not to be completed until 2050, the organization says.

“The U.S. has the capacity to increase this remarkably sluggish pace of downblending only 2 MT a year up to 30 MT per year, thus truly securing the HEU the U.S. is storing within the next four years,” the POGO memo says.

Further, although the U.S. government should reduce a backlog of reserve weapons in the queue to be dismantled, Obama is requesting a 39 percent reduction in the FY 2011 budget for the dismantlement of retired weapons, POGO says.

“This decrease sends the wrong disarmament signal to the global community, as the nuclear components of dismantled weapons can be transformed into safe forms that are unusable for weapons or terrorists,” POGO says. “This funding decrease exacerbates the growing backlog of thousands of nuclear warheads in the dismantlement queue and raises concerns about security.”

A number of the more secure military storage bunkers are filling fast, according to POGO. For example, the Air Force’s most secure facility, the Kirtland Underground Munitions Storage Complex, is virtually filled.

With additional substantial cuts in the number of deployed warheads expected as a result of the new START treaty Obama signed with Russia, and the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review — both coming just a week ago — “it is not clear” that there are adequate secure storage facilities for additional excess warheads.

POGO also recommends removing nuclear weapons from Europe and convert reactors in the United States used for scientific research to LEU reactors.

The White House says it will address this last point regarding the research reactor maintained at the government’s National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), which is located just outside Washington, in Maryland.

The administration says it will request the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Physical Protection Advisory Service review physical protection at the reactor, which supports a broad program of research.

An agency within the Commerce Department, NIST has committed to convert its reactor from highly enriched uranium to a new low enriched uranium fuel “once that has been tested and approved for use,” the White House says.

The publisher of the news site On The Hill, Scott Nance has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.

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