WASHINGTON--Put whiskers and a red suit on him, and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham would make a passable Santa Claus. What Abraham brought home from his recent trip to Moscow and his negotiations with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), plus what others have accomplished on Capitol Hill, are some of the best Christmas presents anyone could have hoped to find under the tree.
In sum, the path has been opened to greater progress in the new year on securing Russian nuclear materials and decreasing the chances that terrorists will be able to obtain the ingredients for suitcase nuclear bombs or other weapons of mass destruction.
Here is the story, as gleaned from interviews with Abraham, members of Congress and others in the Bush administration.
First, the final appropriations bill of 2001 contained virtually all the money that proponents had been seeking in vain all year to safeguard the atomic materials loosely stored and casually guarded at Russian sites. As readers of previous columns on this subject know, the green-eyeshade people in President Bush's OMB had inexplicably decided earlier this year that this was a place to save money, despite the fact that Bush had heartily endorsed the program during the campaign and since taking office.
Bush's first budget cut the money for the Nunn-Lugar program, the 10-year-old bipartisan effort sponsored by former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana--two of the nation's most foresighted national security experts--to lock up those loose nukes and provide work for Russian nuclear scientists left unemployed by the breakup of the Soviet Union.
But now Congress has boosted the appropriation by $120 million, just $11 million less than the sum a strong backer of the program, Texas Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, had been seeking. Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, the senior Democrat on Appropriations, led the fight to restore the money.
Lugar told me the outcome was "very good news" and said he appreciated "the very strong bipartisan support" for the program.
But more good news is in store. Abraham has become a real advocate for the Nunn-Lugar program and said in an interview he is committed to "expanding and accelerating" it in coming months and years.
The former Michigan senator spent two days in Moscow last month with his counterpart, Minister of Atomic Energy Alexander Rumyantsev, and with officials of the Russian navy, another partner in the project. They agreed to "establish a formal process to monitor progress" in "improving measures on nuclear materials physical protection, control and accounting, as well as preventing illegal trafficking and handling of nuclear and radioactive materials."
Beyond those formal words, Abraham said, there was a clear recognition on both sides of the central importance of such controls, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. He and Rumyantsev agreed to set up their own direct communications link, so if any bureaucratic barriers appear, they can deal with them directly and quickly. "This has become one of my top priorities," Abraham said.
At the same time Abraham was holding these meetings in Moscow, the National Security Council was removing its hold on plans for disposing of Russian and American plutonium--a principal ingredient of nuclear weapons--through a process that converts it into a form safe to use in generating electricity. Some Bush aides had questioned the cost and complexity of the process, but they have now agreed that the disposal process can proceed, with adequate funding next year.
Finally, Bush has signaled that money for safeguarding nuclear materials and blocking proliferation of nuclear weapons will be increased in future years. In a Dec. 11 speech at The Citadel, Bush called this "a vital mission." And, congressional sources tell me, his budgeteers actually have increased fiscal 2003 money for this program beyond the Energy Department's request--a real rarity these days.
The effort to safeguard nuclear material likely will expand beyond Russia. Abraham visited the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna to promise joint U.S.-Russian initiatives to strengthen controls on cross-border movements of this lethal stuff. Lugar has talked with Vice President Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice about his vision of developing similar programs for India and Pakistan, and eventually even for Iran and Iraq.
Having previously criticized the Bush administration and some in Congress for shortsighted economies in this area, it is a pleasure now to commend them for this Christmas gift to the nation--and to the world.
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