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Senate Endorses Threat Reduction Action Plan

Daniel Arnaudo

The Senate recently approved legislation calling on the president to submit to Congress a comprehensive plan that would secure nuclear weapons-usable material at vulnerable sites worldwide by 2012.

The measure, sponsored by Senators Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), passed by unanimous consent Sept. 6 as an amendment to the fiscal year 2008 foreign operations appropriations bill. The House version of the bill did not include the measure, and therefore it must be endorsed in a House-Senate conference committee prior to becoming law. Moreover, the overall bill faces a veto threat from President George W. Bush because of what he terms excessive spending in other areas.

The approved provision calls on the president to submit a “comprehensive nuclear threat reduction and security plan” to Congress in classified and unclassified forms within 180 days. The report would include information regarding agency and departmental responsibility and accountability, specify program goals, estimate annual program budget and resource requirements, and provide a diplomatic strategy for achieving program goals. It also calls for a strategy to increase contributions from other countries, particularly China, members of the European Union, Japan, and Russia, for global efforts to secure nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials. Finally, it would outline any progress made by countries with nuclear weapons-usable material in agreeing to a set of standards and best practices for nuclear security consistent with UN Security Council Resolution 1540.

The bill’s sponsors put significant emphasis on efforts to limit the availability of highly enriched uranium (HEU), one of two materials typically used to construct nuclear weapons.

When introducing the original stand-alone legislation from which the appropriations amendment was drawn, Obama pointed out that “there are still significant quantities of weapons-usable nuclear material that remain vulnerable to theft. In the civilian sector alone, there are an estimated 60 tons of highly enriched uranium, enough to make over 1,000 nuclear bombs, spread out at facilities in over 40 countries around the world.”

The amendment also includes a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” declaration seeking to encourage Russia to continue down-blending some of its weapons-grade uranium into low-enriched uranium (LEU). Under a bilateral agreement scheduled to run until 2012, such down-blending has been providing nearly half the fuel used for U.S. nuclear reactors. Russia would like to renegotiate the contract to profit from soaring prices for enriched uranium and to use natural uranium as the raw material. Moscow also would like to preserve its access to the U.S. market after 2012. (See ACT, November 2006.) The Senate-passed provision urges the administration not to sign a new agreement with Russia unless some of the imports of LEU are derived from HEU.

Left out of the amendment but in Obama’s original bill are provisions for greater funding for efforts to convert civilian reactors from HEU use to LEU use, for research into the means of tracking nuclear materials, and for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Department of Safeguards to conduct inspections.