Earlier this year President Barack Obama presented a budget proposal to Congress that included across-the-board cuts to nuclear non-proliferation programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended Thursday that some of those cuts be reversed.
Among the cuts proposed by the Obama administration was a $76.5 million reduction in funding for the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which cleans up radioactive material abroad to prevent terrorists from making improvised nuclear bombs. In total, Obama's budget proposal cut $270 million in funding for non-proliferation programs run by the National Nuclear Security Administration.
The GTRI has "cleaned out" ten countries, most recently the Czech Republic, according to the administration, and aspires to complete removal of radioactive materials from three more countries in 2013.
Kingston Reif, director of nuclear non-proliferation at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, told U.S. News that Senate appropriators reversed nearly all - $73 million - of the administration's cuts to GTRI efforts.
Reif cautioned "it's very confusing right now and there's a lot of uncertainty" about how the appropriation process will unfold, with House appropriators approving language that cuts GTRI funding $16 million below Obama's request.
"Given the insufficiency of the president's budget request, further reducing the funding" is not well-advised, he said.
Senate appropriators also approved a $50 million increase for mobile nuclear radiation detectors that can be used as a "second line of defense" against nuclear smuggling at ports and other transportation hubs, Reif said.
"Since 2009, our efforts to secure plutonium and highly enriched uranium around the world have accelerated to make it significantly more difficult to acquire and traffic the materials to make an improvised nuclear device," NNSA Acting Administrator Neile Miller said during May 9 Senate testimony. "The threat of nuclear terrorism and WMD proliferation remains. Detonation of a nuclear device anywhere in the world could lead to significant loss of life, and extraordinary economic, political, and psychological consequences. "
Despite the non-proliferation cuts, the administration proposed $5.1 billion - a $410.2 million increase - in funding for the NNSA's defense nuclear programs. Around $537 million of that funding would go toward rebuilding of B-61 nuclear weapons in Europe.
The funding dichotomy upset some of Obama's most ardent supporters.
"The non-proliferation program has become the payer for the nuclear weapons program," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said at a hearing in May. The New York Times editorial board denounced it as "at odds with Mr. Obama's own vision."
Last week Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate's Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, said the administration had opted for a "Cadillac" upgrade to the nuclear weapons, going well above what was required, the Global Security Newswire reported. Senate appropriators didn't reduce the weapon funding, but the House Appropriations Committee approved a hike of $23 million above Obama's request.
The Senate Appropriations Committee had a budget mark-up hearing Thursday morning. The recommendations of Feinstein's subcommittee - to increase funding for non-proliferation programs - were referred to the full Senate without amendment. The hearing opened late, with one senator saying into a microphone, "Getting everyone together is... like transporting old cars in a wheelbarrow."
The NNSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment by U.S. News.
Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for promising on the campaign trail to work toward a world without nuclear weapons. During a speech in Berlin in mid-June Obama said he would work with Russia toward "bold reductions" in nuclear weapons.
Senate appropriators "made it a point to fund critical nuclear terrorism prevention programs above the president's budget request," said Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation spokesman Jimmy Lewis. "We're optimistic that the Senate will also see the necessity of investing in cost-effective programs like GTRI and second-line of defense that significantly enhance U.S. security."