A senior U.S. senator on Wednesday criticized the Obama administration for extending the milestone schedule on a number of nuclear-security projects.
Speaking at a Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee hearing, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) singled out Energy Department plans for removing weapons-usable uranium from roughly 200 global nuclear reactors and for securing sensitive radiological materials held at civilian U.S. facilities.
Feinstein said the department's fiscal 2015 budget proposal would push back by five years, to 2035, the target date for wrapping up work on the worldwide reactor-conversion project.
"This simply is unacceptable at the same time we're pouring money into the modernization of certain warheads. It's just unacceptable," Feinstein said.
As part of the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, the project aims to convert reactors and isotope-production facilities that use highly enriched uranium to run instead on low-enriched material, or shut them down altogether. Once the reactors no longer have use for the HEU material, it can be removed and permanently disposed of under a separate GTRI program.
The Energy Department has taken some criticism from anti-nuclear advocates for its budget proposal, which would reduce by almost 18 percent spending on nonproliferation activities while simultaneously increasing funding for nuclear arms by close to 7 percent.
In an exchange with Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who was testifying before the appropriations subcommittee, Feinstein noted that his department also was delaying the completion of a GTRI project to install security upgrades at U.S. nonmilitary sites housing selected radiological and nuclear materials.
The project funds security upgrades for civilian sites that contain these sensitive radiological sources used for research, medical and commercial purposes. As of the end of fiscal 2013, the initiative had installed security enhancements at 1,674 sites, according to the Energy Department's budget proposal.
The nuclear-security effort was established to address concerns that civilian sites could be vulnerable to the theft of weapons-usable radiological sources, which could later be used to build a so-called "dirty bomb." Such an improvised device might use conventional explosives to disperse radioactive contaminants across a wide area.
The department's budget request said that "the previous [project] end date of 2044 is now TBD pending a review" of the scope and financial requirements.
"Has there been a change in threat assessment that I'm not aware of?" Feinstein asked. "Are terrorists no longer interested in acquiring nuclear or radiological bombs for improvised nuclear devices and dirty bombs? I don't understand how you can defend this budget on nonproliferation cuts."
Moniz acknowledged that "things like the GTRI program ... they do have reductions." But he added that a "very constrained" budget environment necessitated "some tough choices."
The Energy secretary defended the Obama administration's overall progress in efforts to secure nuclear materials worldwide.
"There's been a surge, really, over the last four years with 12 countries, all HEU [highly enriched uranium] removed from them, including I think three in the last year, year-and-a-half," Moniz said.