Feinstein Criticizes Extending Timetable for Nuclear-Security Projects

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Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) speaks in January on Capitol Hill. On Wednesday, the senior lawmaker criticized the Energy Department's plan to extend the schedule for completing work on multiple nuclear-security projects.
National Journal
Rachel Oswald
April 11, 2014, 9:38 a.m.

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.

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