Is Obama Failing to Keep Nuclear Materials Out of Terrorists' Hands?

Is Obama falling down on keeping nuclear materials away from terrorists?

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First lady Michelle Obama applauds as President Barack Obama waves at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Feb. 7, 2013.
First lady Michelle Obama applauds as President Barack Obama waves at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Feb. 7, 2013.

In his brief time as a member of the United States Senate, Barack Obama did manage to make a mark as someone who appeared seriously concerned about the proliferation internationally of fissionable nuclear materials.

It's a serious potential threat. Ever since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the possibility that terrorist groups could get their hands on nuclear materials needed to build a crude weapon has grown considerably. Yet the Obama administration may not be taking the threat seriously.

The only thing keeping terrorist groups like al Qaeda from achieving their stated goal of building and detonating a weapon has been the difficulty of obtaining the necessary nuclear materials—but that has not stopped them from trying to get it.

The United States Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration has been working for years to reduce global dangers from nuclear weapons and nuclear material, principally by securing dangerous nuclear weapons materials. These efforts usually have bipartisan support, since thankfully countering nuclear terrorism hasn't become partisan fodder. But the support for these efforts may be waning because of the ongoing budget crisis.

Every nuclear weapon has plutonium, the "trigger" that starts the nuclear chain reaction. Plutonium is only found naturally in small amounts so it must be manufactured.  During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union produced massive amounts of plutonium to fuel their nuclear arsenals. Once the Cold War ended, Russia was faced with a severe problem: Vast stocks of nuclear weapons material, including plutonium, were not well guarded.  Enter the United States, which through the Energy Department and, later, the National Nuclear Security Administration, made agreements with the Russians to shut down plutonium producing reactors and to increase security at sites housing nuclear material and weapons. 

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As certain types of nuclear weapons were discontinued or dismantled, dangerous material, including plutonium, began to pile up. The United States and Russia signed an agreement that commits both sides to disposing of at least 34 metric tons of plutonium, meaning the next step on the road toward improved security, to get rid of this fissile material, is Mixed Oxide, also known as MOX.

The United States is building a MOX facility at the Energy Department's Savannah River Site in Aiken, S.C., where surplus plutonium currently stored—and guarded at a cost of tens of millions of dollars annually—will be converted into a form that can be burned in civilian nuclear reactors. Not only does this dispose of existing plutonium so that it can never be used by terrorists in a crude nuclear weapon, it will fuel low cost electricity production that will benefit many Americans. On the surface it's a great solution to two different, difficult problems,

Up to now the MOX program has been supported by Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and now Obama, and the Congress. In 2010, Obama called the MOX Program "real progress in building a safer world."  

"In a major and welcomed development, Russia announced that it will close its last weapons-grade plutonium production reactor.  After many years of effort, I'm pleased that the United States and Russia agreed today to eliminate 68 tons of plutonium for our weapons programs—plutonium that would have been enough for about 17,000 nuclear weapons. Instead, we will use this material to help generate electricity for our people," the president said.

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Disposing of plutonium is the only way to strengthen nuclear security for good.  Last year, an 82-year-old nun and two other antinuclear activists broke into one of the government's most secure nuclear material storage facilities. They vandalized the side of a building holding nuclear material, and wrapped it in crime scene tape. It's lucky they only embarrassed the Y-12 National Security Complex and the Department of Energy's  National Nuclear Security Administration. If they had been terrorists on a mission to steal nuclear material to use in a bomb or on a suicide mission to explode nuclear material the results would have been catastrophic.  

Now, however, there are some in the Obama administration who want to slow or eliminate the MOX program and use its funding for other things. This many be pennywise but it is almost certainly pound foolish. Ending MOX so that the green energy fantasy can continue to be funded is muddle-headed policy at best. What good is another Solyndra, especially if it increases—however slightly—the chance that a major American city might be leveled by a crude nuclear bomb?

If the Obama administration cuts funding for the efforts to dispose of plutonium and the MOX program, then the Russians will walk away from the agreement. That will result in not only huge amounts of plutonium not being guarded; it will allow the Russians to potentially reuse this plutonium in new nuclear weapons and allow them to start producing more plutonium again

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In a recent bipartisan letter to President Obama, South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Democrat Rep. Jim Clyburn, and four others wrote,

We must stay the course on the MOX Project and create a pathway to safely and responsibly dispose of this excess weapons-grade plutonium.  It is our opinion that a failure to complete the MOX facility will lead to a world with more weapons-grade plutonium than necessary—creating additional and unnecessary risk that such  material will be stolen or diverted to malicious purposes…..It is our responsibility to honor our part of the agreement to ensure Russia upholds their end.

Will President Obama and his administration keep our end of the bargain and make sure the Russians keep theirs?  Let's hope politics doesn't enter into this issue and slow or defund the MOX project, for the sake of us all.