WASHINGTON -- A tight budget environment could limit programs aimed at preventing from shipping nuclear weapon or dirty-bomb material into the United States, Homeland Security Department officials suggested on Tuesday.
An effort to detect illicit radiological material at international ports before it could reach U.S. soil “does require some commitment to staff and funding, which nowadays is going in the wrong direction,” John MacKinney, who directs DHS nuclear and radiological policy, said at a breakfast discussion on Capitol Hill.
Nuclear detection efforts “are kind of in a holding pattern in terms of programmatic spending,” MacKinney said, while declining to discuss any particular projects that might suffer during the coming fiscal year. “All departments are dealing with budgets being clamped down and trying not to furlough people,” he said, adding, “If you’re furloughing people, you’re probably not expanding programs.”
For fiscal 2014, the Obama administration is requesting $291 million for the activities of the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, $30 million less than what Congress allocated for the current year. The Senate is proposing to cut an additional $2 million beyond what the administration has proposed. The House would cut slightly less.
Also speaking at the event, John Zabko, assistant director of the DHS Domestic Nuclear Detection Office, said the budget cutbacks might affect already fielded systems.
“Sustainment of currently deployed technology” aimed at detecting radiological materials could suffer, he said. “Obviously, as budgets go down, [for equipment] in the field, you extend the maintenance life period, [or] you extend how long they were supposed to be operating.”
Zabko suggested these workarounds could have long-term ramifications.
“You can imagine that if you get a capability and not apply funds to maintain it, your capability is going to come down,” he said.
According to the legislative report accompanying the Senate’s fiscal 2014 appropriations bill, the department is expected to use a portion of its funds “to undertake a robust testing program to validate the potential benefits of commercial systems that can detect shielded nuclear material and have the potential to reduce the overall cost and time it takes to scan incoming cargo for hazardous material.” It says such systems may be beneficial in addressing a controversial requirement that 100 percent of U.S.-bound cargo be scanned for illicit nuclear material before it leaves foreign ports.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced last year that she was delaying implementation of the scan-everything requirement until at least 2014. She maintained that it is an overly expensive approach and that all “high risk” shipments are already “examined through a number of measures, including screening, scanning [and] physical inspection.”
The House said in its report that none of the funds requested for fiscal 2014 are “directly related” to implementation of the requirement. Lawmakers called on DHS leaders to propose a meaningful alternative to the 100 percent scanning requirement that is more comprehensive and detailed than the Obama administration’s January 2012 plan, called the “National Strategy for Global Supply Chain Security.”
The lower chamber would direct the department to submit an alternative strategy by January.
House and Senate lawmakers are to meet in conference to resolve differences between their appropriations bills before the legislation is sent to the White House for presidential signature.