The continuing crisis in Japan from the near-meltdown of the Fukushima reactor is terrifying in its own right. But it also raises the question of another, even deadlier nuclear threat.
The evacuations now going on in Japan would pale in comparison to what would be necessary if just one 100-kiloton nuclear bomb were to go off near a major city - not to mention the immediate deaths caused by the bomb, which could reach into the hundreds of thousands. And a 100-kiloton bomb is among the smallest in the U.S. or Russian arsenals.
Even under the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty - a welcome but modest step toward ridding the world of nuclear danger finally approved by Congress late last year - the United States and Russia will each have more than 1,500 deployed nuclear warheads, many of them with far more than 100 kilotons of explosive power.
But the more urgent threat doesn't come from the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between Washington and Moscow. The most immediate nuclear danger is not from state-to-state warfare but from the risk that a bomb or bomb-making materials might fall into the hands of terrorists.
Through video messages and on the Internet, al-Qaida has repeatedly expressed its interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon. Intelligence sources have even verified its efforts to reach out to nuclear weapons scientists. Yet the Congress is poised to cut the programs that can make a difference in whether al-Qaida gets the bomb.
Many of the most crucial programs in this regard are funded through the budget of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Taken together with parallel initiatives in the Pentagon budget, these programs represent the most effective investment dollar-for-dollar of any national security program in the federal budget. At a requested level of $2.6 billion, they are equivalent in cost to less than two weeks of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These initiatives work. NNSA programs secured 800 bombs' worth of nuclear material in 2010 alone, executed the largest single removal of highly enriched uranium in history (450 kilograms from Poland), and, through the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, eliminated enriched uranium from six countries. To reduce the risk of theft or use, these dangerous materials are either consolidated into highly secure storage facilities in the United States or Russia, or changed into a low enriched form that can't be used to build a nuclear weapon. It's all part of the Obama administration's effort to secure or destroy excess nuclear weapons and nuclear bomb-making materials as quickly as possible - within four years' time if the programs are adequately funded. There is no time to lose.
Despite their achievements and the dire threat they are designed to address, the GOP-controlled House of Representatives' current budget proposal provides around $600 million less for these nonproliferation programs than the Obama administration requested, and around $100 million less than last year's levels. The Democratic-controlled Senate proposal is slightly better, cutting about half as much. Even at a time of tight budgets, these programs are too important to scale back. Nonproliferation funds must be restored.
One member of Congress who can play a leadership role in making this happen is Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.), who heads the House subcommittee with jurisdiction over these programs. Other key players include Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). But influential New York legislators like Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand should weigh in as well, encouraging their colleagues to do the right thing. These programs, and others like them, have historically received bipartisan support. In fact they were created in 1992 as a result of the efforts of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.).
There's no getting around the fact that the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate will be at odds on how much to spend on any number of programs. But funding designed to stop the spread of nuclear materials to terrorists should not be fodder for partisan bickering. At a time when voters are frustrated about the lack of cooperation on Capitol Hill, fully funding key nuclear nonproliferation programs is an excellent place to start.