Congress Doesn’t Get It on Nuclear Security, Report Finds

At a time of compounding global nuclear dangers, congressional awareness of the complexity and diversity of the threat is troublingly low, particularly when it comes to terrorists obtaining a nuclear or radiological weapon, a new independent study finds.

There is broad bipartisan support for securing the world’s nuclear materials, but congressional oversight of the multiple federal agencies with roles in securing domestic and international nuclear and radiological materials has been lacking, the Arms Control Association and Partnership for a Secure America conclude in joint report released Thursday.

The authors interviewed 20 congressional staffers specifically selected for their foreign policy and defense portfolios and conducted a broader online survey of over 100 staffers. They found that while most staffers agreed nuclear security efforts needed improvement, responses for how to do that “revealed the absence of any overarching strategy,” according to the report.

“The U.S. nuclear security enterprise and mission is at a critical inflection point,” said co-author Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.

Reif attributed the decline in congressional attention to nuclear security to several factors. Those include the end of a global nuclear security summit process led by President Barack Obama, which from 2010-2016 resulted in over 900 national commitments from dozens of countries to improve their laws and policies for safeguarding nuclear materials.

Those commitments “really brought a large amount of attention at the highest levels to the subject,” said Reif.

Another was the breakdown in U.S.-Russian nuclear security cooperation following the Russian Federation’s 2014 seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. There has also been a notable change in administration priorities under President Donald Trump, who is pushing for the development of new types of nuclear weapons.

And voter concern — a major driver of lawmaker attention — about nuclear security is low, according to the report. That means congressional activity around nuclear security is primarily driven by the leaders of the Armed Services, Intelligence, and Foreign Relations committees or by lawmakers who have developed a particular interest in the issue.

“Oftentimes it’s the things that are in the headlines” that drive congressional attention, said Nathan Sermonis, executive director of the Partnership for a Secure America. “This one really isn’t in the headlines and it hasn’t been for a while although it continues to be an incredibly important issue.”

Over the past quarter century, there have been approximately 20 documented thefts of weapons-usable nuclear material was stolen.

The United States is not immune to such thefts, as the Center for Public Integrity documented in a June investigative report. But learning about these incidents can be difficult as the Energy Department, which manages the U.S. military’s stockpile of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium, does not have to publicize seizures in the same manner as thefts of civilian sector atomic material.

In order to correct for the deficit in overall congressional knowledge, the report recommends lawmakers direct the Office of Management and Budget to annually summarize the U.S. budget for nonproliferation and nuclear security programs, including arms control agreement implementation, development of new nuclear material detectors and screening of cargo at domestic and international seaports.

“As it now stands, the budget and responsibilities are spread throughout the U.S. government like a scatter gram,” the report states.

Having a complete picture of what the U.S. is doing to combat the threat of nuclear terrorism is a first step, the report argues, to lawmakers understanding the policy overlaps and gaps that exist so that they can correct them, including through legislation.