WASHINGTON--Lack of cooperation by other countries, not domestic budgetary constraints, poses the greatest obstacle to President Obama's goal of securing the world's loose nuclear materials, a senior U.S. defense official said recently.
"We're not funding-limited on this stuff, but we are limited by our ability to engage in some of what I call the 'hard cases,' " according to John Harvey, principal deputy to the assistant Defense secretary for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs.
Harvey on Friday specifically mentioned North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, China, and India as nations where it has proven difficult to work jointly to lock down fissile materials. Washington has long had antagonistic relations with Pyongyang and Tehran, while nuclear security is considered a sovereign matter in Beijing and Islamabad.
He added that issues have also arisen in talks with allies, including securing plutonium intended for use in mixed-oxide fuel, a potential U.S. energy source that blends the fissile material with uranium. He did not cite specific countries.
"Places where we have a good handle on, or have the cooperation [for] ... the types of activities that NNSA is doing to secure fissile material elsewhere, globally, not just in the former Soviet Union ... those programs are pretty well funded for what we need," Harvey said at a breakfast event on Capitol Hill.
"Our getting access to some of these hard cases is the driving factor, not necessarily funding," he told Global Security Newswire after the event. Harvey emphasized that the assessment was his personal view and does not necessarily reflect Pentagon opinion.
Until last year, Harvey headed the policy-planning staff at the National Nuclear Security Administration. The semiautonomous branch of the Energy Department manages the U.S. national laboratories, oversees stewardship of the nation's nuclear stockpile, and conducts nonproliferation projects around the world.
Loose nuclear material is generally defined as actual weapons, fissile material, or atomic know-how from the former Soviet Union and beyond that could fall into the hands of rogue nations or nonstate actors.
The containment of such material became a linchpin of the nonproliferation agenda that Obama detailed shortly after taking office.
The White House last spring convened the first Global Nuclear Security Summit in Washington. World leaders and dignitaries from nearly 50 countries and international organizations pledged to secure worldwide stocks of nuclear material within four years and agreed to hold a second security summit next year in South Korea.
Twenty-nine nations at the summit offered to carry out 54 nuclear-security actions, according to previous reports. On Friday, Ukraine announced that it had almost finished meeting its 2010 commitment to remove all of its weapon-grade highly enriched uranium from the country.
Harvey said that the United States would implement "surrogate approaches" with recalcitrant nations in order to support the worldwide effort and "get at the problem from another side."
One approach he touted was the administration's goal to help develop and implement best practices for nuclear security through facilities that would evaluate a country's equipment and security personnel and provide training to those assigned to protect sensitive materials. Those "centers of excellence," set up in part by the Defense and Energy departments, are slated to begin operations in China, Japan, and South Korea in 2012.
Administration officials made clear that the president's four-year goal of securing "vulnerable" material would not include illicit nuclear programs in nations such as Iran and North Korea, according to Kenneth Luongo, president of the Partnership for Global Security.
"They were being addressed by separate processes, the goal of which was to eliminate their nuclear programs, not secure them," he told GSN by e-mail on Friday.
Luongo noted that the United States is engaged on the issue with nuclear-armed India, Pakistan, and China. However, "I would agree that those engagements are not resource-limited, but instead [are] limited by politics."
Addressing the ongoing 2012 budget process, Harvey noted the recent decision by a key congressional panel to withdraw money from NNSA nonproliferation and nuclear weapons programs.
The administration requested $11.7 billion for the nuclear agency in the budget cycle that begins on October 1, including $7.6 billion for "weapons activities," which ensure the safety and performance of the nation's atomic arsenal, and more than $2.5 billion for nonproliferation initiatives.
Last month, the House approved a fiscal 2012 defense authorization bill that supported the White House's full funding request for the agency.
However, the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee last week approved an appropriations bill for fiscal 2012 that would strip more than $1 billion from the president's appeal. The bulk of that decrease would originate from the nuclear agency's weapons and nonproliferation activities.
The exact apportionment of the proposed cuts will not be made available until Tuesday, the day before the full House Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the bill.
A preliminary breakdown obtained by GSN shows the spending measure proposes $7.1 billion for weapons work, a decrease of slightly less than $500 million, or 7 percent. The document also shows that NNSA nonproliferation accounts would drop to slightly more than $2 billion, a reduction of more than $500 million.
"That's demonstration that we're in a tough period," Harvey told the audience.
He also sounded an ominous note about the coming budget cycle.
"We're moving into a presidential election season, and we should not be hopeful that we can surmount the financial gridlock characteristic of the [fiscal 2011] budget exercise," Harvey said, alluding to the protracted budget battle that nearly shuttered the federal government earlier this year.
"We have to recognize we cannot afford everything, but our best strategy is to consolidate our recent gains through solid implementation of programs," he added.
Luongo said that the NNSA nuclear-security agenda "is definitely being squeezed by inadequate budgets." The proposed cut by a House panel to nonproliferation work, he noted, is "worse" than the roughly $2.3 allocated for those accounts in fiscal 2011.
"If the House number or something close to it is sustained in the final appropriation, NNSA's ability to lead in securing nuclear material security will be significantly compromised," he told GSN. "And it will send exactly the wrong message to the rest of the world, including our sworn enemies."