WASHINGTON — Just weeks before he heads to The Hague to meet with world leaders for the third Nuclear Security Summit, President Obama has unveiled a budget that includes more than $220 million in cuts for nuclear security programs in the next fiscal year.
One of the biggest reductions will come to the International Material Protection and Cooperation program, which works to secure and eliminate vulnerable nuclear weapons and materials. Obama asked for $305.5 million, or $114 million less than was appropriated in the 2014 budget.
Obama also requested $108 million less than was appropriated last year for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, a program that plays a key part in the Energy Department's effort at preventing terrorists from acquiring nuclear and radiological materials that could be used in weapons of mass destruction.
With the proposed cuts, some nuclear security experts now question whether Obama, who made nuclear security a pet issue during his time in the Senate and launched the biennial Nuclear Security Summit process, remains committed to the issue.
"What I take away from this budget is that there was a lack of leadership in trying to maintain the prioritization of the funding of this issue," said Kenneth Luongo, who served as senior adviser in the Energy Department on non-proliferation issues during the Clinton administration and is now the president of the Partnership for Global Security. "The signal … is we are in retreat on this issue, and I think that is a huge mistake."
Administration officials dismiss the notion that the budget reflects a loss of passion on the issue since Obama spoke in his agenda-setting 2009 visit to Prague about his vision for a nuclear-free world. At that time he expressed deep worries about terrorists obtaining nuclear material.
Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz noted with the budget's release this week that the decrease in the nuclear nonproliferation budget is due in large part to the decision to shelve a project in South Carolina to convert weapons-grade plutonium into nuclear reactor fuel that proved to be too costly.
The decision to put the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility, or MOX, on "cold standby" accounts for 54% of the decrease in the administration's nonproliferation request. The facility was to play an important part in an agreement with Russia, where each side has committed to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium.
Moniz said the administration is looking for ways to revive the MOX project with substantial cost reductions. The decision will also require the administration to reengage with Russia on the issue at a time when the relationship is under strain over the Russian military action in the Ukraine.
"At the right time, we will have to reengage in those discussions," Moniz said. "Now may not be the right time."
The decision to put the MOX on hold, not surprisingly, has infuriated some lawmakers.
"Requiring Russia to cooperate and dispose of their nuclear bombs should not be up for debate," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C.
Republican criticism notwithstanding, Obama has already burnished a significant legacy on nuclear issues.
In his first five years in office, he issued a nuclear posture review that reduced the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) that commits to further reducing the U.S.- and Russian-deployed nuclear arsenals. He also nudged Iran to negotiations with the world's six leading powers over its nuclear program.
And since launching the Nuclear Security Summit process in Washington in 2010, the Obama administration notes that 12 countries have disposed of their highly enriched uranium stockpiles, many countries are adopting international requirements for nuclear security and 19 countries have launched a counter nuclear smuggling initiative. (Leaders from 53 countries are expected to take part in the March 24-25 summit, which for the first time is to include a tabletop exercise focused on preventing nuclear and radiological terrorism.)
But despite the positive trends on nuclear security since Obama launched the summit, a number of challenges haven't been overcome, said Page Stoutland, vice president of nuclear materials security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Notably, the summit process has failed to produce global standards for how nuclear materials should be stored.
At the summit held in Seoul in March 2012, more than 50 countries pledged to throw their energy into winning ratification of a treaty dealing with nuclear materials' issues in time for the Netherlands summit. The legislation has not made its way through the Senate and Obama will go to The Hague short of his goal.
Luongo, the former Energy Department official, said there is no doubt that progress has been made on nuclear security during the Obama administration.
"But the real question is, 'Is it enough?'" Luongo said. "Are we doing enough … to prevent nuclear terrorism — not just putting together fences that have holes in them, but they look okay."
In a recent interview with Harvard University's Belfer Center, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Obama's principal adviser on countering WMD, pushed back against the suggestion that the international community or the Obama administration is losing steam on the issue.
"I don't think there is a problem with complacency," Sherwood-Randall said. "We are seized with this challenge — with preventing sensitive materials from falling into the hands of terrorists or others who could use it to do us harm."