Despite this risk nuclear security is not a high priority on Capitol Hill, and leadership is largely ceded to the executive branch where competing interests increasingly sideline this critical issue. The history of bipartisan congressional engagement on nuclear security dramatically contrasts with today’s level of legislative interest. Attention has sharply declined since the end of the Nuclear Security Summit process in 2016 and the exodus of congressional members and staff who formed their worldviews through the Cold War.
To better understand past and present congressional engagement on nuclear security, Partnership for a Secure America (PSA) and the Arms Control Association (ACA) jointly undertook a first-ever study of current congressional staff attitudes on the issue and explored case studies of congressional leadership in this field.
The Nuclear Security Summit process and U.S. nuclear security and threat reduction programs have played a vital role in reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. However, significant gaps remain, particularly with respect to the security of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium stockpiles. About 50 new nuclear power plants are under construction around the world and 20 countries that do not currently have nuclear power programs have expressed interest in developing them. The use of emerging technologies with potential nuclear proliferation and nuclear security implications poses new challenges.
The task of plugging the gaps and reducing material stockpiles is likely to be more challenging now that the summit process, the last gathering of which took place in March 2016, and the high-level political attention it brought to this issue has come to an end. In addition, Russia, which possesses the largest cache of nuclear weapons usable material on the planet, boycotted the 2016 Summit and ended most nuclear security cooperation with the United States in 2014. Cooperation with other countries that pose significant nuclear security risks remains limited.
Meanwhile, U.S. budgets for nuclear security continue to decline while funding to sustain and upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons trends upward. In addition, Congress has restricted nuclear security cooperation with Russia and taken initial steps to constrain cooperation with China. The Trump administration’s limited interest in nuclear security has also introduced uncertainty about sustaining U.S. leadership on the issue.
Over the years, bipartisan congressional support for nuclear security programs has been a critical feature of U.S. leadership in continuously improving global nuclear security. There is a long legacy of bipartisan congressional action to reduce nuclear risks, such as Senators Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in 1991 establishing U.S.-led programs to assist the countries of the former Soviet Union in securing and eliminating nuclear weapons and materials.
1. Require the Office of Management and Budget to annually prepare a report summarizing the U.S. budget for nonproliferation and nuclear security programs.
The consolidated summary should include all funding by agency/department for U.S. government programs to prevent nuclear and radiological terrorism, prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, implement arms control agreements, halt illicit transfers of nuclear technology, screen cargo at domestic and international ports, research and develop tools and strategies to address future nonproliferation challenges, etc. As it now stands, the budget and responsibilities are spread throughout the U.S. government like a scatter gram. A consolidated summary would bring greater clarity to the cost of the government’s wide-ranging nuclear threat reduction activities, allow for a better understanding of the alignment between program goals and budget estimates, and make it easier to identify potential program overlaps and redundancies. In addition, Congress should mandate that the Comptroller General produce an annual report on the government’s nuclear security budget. This report should assess changes in the budget estimates from year to year, identify redundancies that may exist across different agencies, examine the extent to which the budget estimates align with plans for nuclear security efforts, provide suggestions on developing new metrics for nuclear security progress, and provide details about how unspent carryover balances are being used.
2. Hold hearings on U.S. nuclear and radiological security strategy.
In light of the evolving nuclear security threat environment, Congress—specifically the Armed Services, Foreign Relations/Affairs, Intelligence, Homeland Security, Commerce, and Oversight and Government Reform Committees—should hold a series of hearings in 2018 and early 2019 that examine U.S. nuclear terrorism prevention strategy and spending with government and non-governmental experts. Areas of focus could include: an assessment of the current and likely future challenges to material security and nonproliferation, including those which require priority attention; the U.S. government’s current areas of focus in material security and nonproliferation; the ways current U.S. government material security and nonproliferation efforts could be improved and/or expanded; the obstacles that stand in the way of making changes to U.S. government material security and nonproliferation activities and how they might be overcome; and whether current international efforts, including those by the United States, to secure nuclear material are commensurate with the risks and consequences to our country, the global economy and global security, and if not, what more should be done to develop a sustainably effective global effort to secure nuclear material and prevent nuclear terrorism.
3. Call for more administration briefings on nuclear security issues.
The relevant congressional committees and Congressional Nuclear Security Working Group should request more and regular briefings on nuclear security issues. This should include senior-level briefings, but also discussions between congressional and Energy Department staff focused on threat assessment and implementation at the programmatic level. In addition, the working groups should arrange for more frequent CODELs and STAFFDELs to national and foreign sites where U.S. nuclear security activities are being implemented. Visits could include briefings with international agencies, such as the IAEA and the Nuclear Security Contact Group.
4. Establish a blue ribbon, bipartisan congressional commission to recommend by 2020 a comprehensive strategy to prevent, counter, and respond to nuclear and radiological terrorism.
The commission would be modeled after the bipartisan Congressional Strategic Posture Commission created by Congress in 2008. Members of the commission would be appointed by the Chairman and Ranking Members of the Senate and House Armed Services, Foreign Relations/Affairs, and Intelligence Committees. This commission should focus on:
- identifying national and international nuclear and radiological terrorism risks and critical emerging threats;
- preventing state and non-state actors from acquiring the technologies, materials, and critical expertise needed to mount nuclear or radiological attacks;
- countering efforts by state and non-state actors to mount such attacks;
- responding to nuclear and radiological terrorism incidents to attribute their origin and help manage their consequences;
- providing the projected resources to implement the strategy; and
- delineating indicators for assessing progress toward implementing the strategy.
The strategy should also outline how the administration plans to (1) encourage and incentivize other countries and relevant international organizations (e.g., IAEA, Interpol) to make nuclear security a priority (2) improve cooperation and appropriate integration among federal entities and federal, state, and tribal governments; and (3) improve cooperation between the United States and other countries and international organizations, particularly China, India, Pakistan, and Russia. The fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act mandates that the JASON defense advisory group conduct a similar review, but a congressional commission would carry a higher profile and thus be more likely to influence policy.
5. Invest in educational and training programs on Capitol Hill.
Based on findings from the PSA-ACA survey of congressional staff attitudes and understanding of the nuclear security issue-area stemming in part from the erosion of expertise within Congress, there should be a coordinated and sustained plan to supplement executive branch briefings, hearings, and expertise with additional training and educational programs on nuclear security in the Congress.
6. Establish a nuclear security crosscut initiative.
The initiative would be led by NNSA’s Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (DNN) program, which is the tip of the spear in the U.S. government’s effort to reduce nuclear and radiological threats. While DNN plays the lead role, the Energy Department is full of other experts with valuable knowledge about how best to confront emerging nuclear security and nonproliferation challenges. However, their activities could be more effectively coordinated and there is a need to ensure that this expertise does not atrophy. The initiative, which would consist of department offices with a stake in the nuclear security mission, would produce a ten-year strategy and options for shared resource investments. As part of this effort, the initiative would take stock of the department’s existing capabilities, identify atrophying capabilities, and outline options to rebuild needed capabilities. Such an analysis would require approximately $30 million and could be modeled after the congressionally-led effort in 2010 to restore the national laboratories’ capabilities to assess foreign nuclear weapons capabilities
7. Expand NNSA’s nuclear security and nonproliferation research and development efforts.
A 2015 Energy Department task force on NNSA nonproliferation programs recommended that the NNSA should expand its efforts to build the foundations for dealing with future nuclear security and nonproliferation challenges and opportunities. Congress should require NNSA to report on its research and development activities and identify where opportunities are available to expand these activities, particularly in coordination with the national laboratories, universities, and industry. The report should focus on NNSA’s efforts to:
- Develop new capabilities to detect uranium enrichment, uranium processing, plutonium processing, and weaponization activities;
- Develop improved physical protection, material accounting, and material control technologies;
- Develop new capabilities to detect special nuclear material, including in transport, and to improve the effectiveness of international safeguards;
- Develop alternatives to high-performance research reactors;
- Develop ways to verify that stocks of HEU set aside for naval fuel are not being used for weapons, without revealing sensitive information; and
- Examine ways adversaries could potentially use 3D printing and other new technologies to make nuclear-weapons usable components.
8. Call for and support a global strategy, stronger regulations, and increased funding to secure the most vulnerable highest-risk radiological materials around the world in five years.
A multi-dimensional approach should be implemented that includes:
- securing the most vulnerable sources (where needed);
- implementing stronger regulatory requirements;
- ensuring universal adherence to the IAEA Code of Conduct on the Safety and Security of Radioactive Sources; and
- implementing additional cost sharing by industry and end-users of the radiological sources.
The accelerated effort should prioritize the elimination, consolidation, and security of the highest risk radioactive sources in the United States that could be used for radiological dispersal devices. This would allow the United States to lead by example and profit U.S. based industries that commercialize and sell non-radioactive technologies. According to one estimate this effort would likely require around $500 million over five years.
9. Continue funding to support conversion of naval reactors to the use of LEU fuel.
Congress should continue to make funding available for research and development of an advanced nuclear fuel system based on LEU fuel despite the Navy and Energy Department’s opposition to the effort. The use of LEU instead of HEU would strengthen nuclear security by reducing the amount of weapons-grade HEU in military inventories and the risk that HEU could be stolen as it is transited from facility to facility for production and processing. Congress has been the driving force behind the effort to find alternatives to HEU, beginning with the fiscal year 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, which directed the Energy Department to update a 1995 department report assessing the technical, environmental, economic, and proliferation implications of using LEU instead of HEU in naval nuclear propulsion systems. Without congressional engagement on this issue, the Navy would not have revealed in 2016 that LEU could be used to power naval vessels. To their credit, both the Senate and House Appropriations Committee versions of the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill include up to $10 million to fund continued research and development activities.
10. Fund a program of activities to strengthen nuclear security in North Korea as part of the phased and verifiable dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and supporting infrastructure.
At a historic June 12, 2018 summit meeting in Singapore, Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un committed to work toward the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. While it remains to be seen whether subsequent negotiations will lead to a breakthrough that reduces the North Korea nuclear threat, even steps toward this goal will pose an immense monitoring and verification challenge. Additional financial support for existing and potentially new verification and threat reduction tools will be required to ensure that the United States, its partners, and the IAEA and other international organizations can achieve the denuclearization goal in a phased and safe manner. The CTR program could serve as a model for how to implement denuclearization steps and enhance the security of North Korean nuclear materials. As Nunn and Lugar wrote in an April 23 Washington Post op-ed:
We believe this concept should be a critical component of any effort to verifiably and irreversibly dismantle North Korea’s nuclear weapons and related programs, as well as prevent future proliferation of weapons, material or know-how. Such cooperation can also be used to engage thousands of North Korean scientists and engineers, who are now employed in making weapons of mass destruction, in peaceful scientific and technical work. This would also diminish the risk of proliferation of their deadly knowledge to other states or terrorists.
Laying the groundwork for such efforts should begin now. Congress should provide an additional $100 million in fiscal year 2019 that would be divided between the Defense Department’s CTR program and the Energy Department’s DNN program to model the verification and security requirements associated with different denuclearization steps and scenarios, identify gaps, and provide recommendations for needed capabilities.
1. Among congressional staff, there is no clear understanding of what nuclear security means. The term is broadly interpreted as “security from nuclear threats” within this community and rarely understood as “security of nuclear materials and the facilities that house them.”
Most congressional staff do not associate the term “nuclear security” with the definition used by the IAEA, technical experts, and members of civil society—“security of nuclear materials and the facilities that house them.” Focus group participants noted that most staffers think of “nuclear security” as meaning “security from nuclear threats”—a broad umbrella that encompasses the entire range of possible nuclear threat scenarios. In this context, state-based nuclear threats posed by Russia, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan dominate staff attention.
Rather than relying on a shared interpretation of the term “nuclear security,” experts seeking to engage with Capitol Hill should be as specific as possible. Referring to “security of nuclear materials and the facilities that house them” rather than “nuclear security” leaves less room for misinterpretation. Since nuclear security is understood on Capitol Hill as a catch-all term, it is important to frame the subject for congressional audiences by explicitly referring to materials, facilities, and preventing nuclear terrorism.
2. Staffers who have spent more years in Congress are more familiar with nuclear security and the Nuclear Security Summits than their less experienced peers. This may be due to the heightened international activity around this issue from the four Nuclear Security Summits.
Without a dramatic incident to elevate it into the headlines (e.g., detonation of a dirty bomb in an American city), congressional focus on nuclear security is limited, and attention is fixed on other pressing issues, such as negotiating disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. However, staff who have served longer in Congress are more likely to have been involved in past nuclear security efforts, and thus display a better understanding of the issue.
In the short term, efforts to advance nuclear security on Capitol Hill should target staff who have jurisdictional responsibility for the issue, or who are, for one reason or another, highly engaged with the issue. In the longer term, inclusive efforts should be launched to introduce younger staff to nuclear security; this would both broaden the pool of staff who regularly work on these issues and serve as a means for engaging members of Congress.
3. Staff who are more familiar with nuclear security and the Nuclear Security Summits place a higher priority on the issue. This could mean that better nuclear security education on Capitol Hill can elevate the urgency of this issue.
Exposure to issues provides staff with important opportunities to accumulate knowledge and experience, driving awareness, understanding, and possibly prioritization. Focus group participants voiced a belief that seeing nuclear security programs and technology (e.g., radiation detection portals) in-person is important for staff, as it helps them to contextualize the issue. Staff within our sample who rely on the news media for nuclear security information are, according to their self-assessment, the least familiar with nuclear security and place a low priority on the issue.
Congressional staff who worked on Capitol Hill during the Nuclear Security Summits are important targets for outreach and coalition building. According to this study, these staff are more familiar with nuclear security and rank it a higher national security priority than their less experienced peers. This community, however, is small and continuing to shrink. While the Nuclear Security Summits and related media coverage did spike momentary interest, focus group participants suggested that the summits barely engaged Capitol Hill—even the two summits that took place in Washington, D.C. A spark of momentary interest seems to be insufficient to sustain congressional attention.
It’s clear that future efforts to inform Capitol Hill on nuclear security should be tailored specifically to Congress in order to build broader and more sustainable engagement from this community. A welltailored effort to engage and educate a congressional audience should have a few fundamental characteristics: it should be conducted on Capitol Hill to ensure ease of access for congressional staff; it should offer action items that empower Congress to use the tools at its disposal (e.g., the annual National Defense Authorization Act) to advance policy solutions; and it should explicitly engage a bipartisan collective of the congressional community. These three components are foundational for engagement, but are not all encompassing.
Congress is not a single community with broadly defined interests and should not be approached as such. Targeting the right of congressional staff is as important as the substance and execution of any educational efforts. Educators who understand their target audience can better frame the importance of nuclear security by connecting it to salient threats that resonate on Capitol Hill.
4. Staff members’ views on the gravest nuclear risk are related to the nuclear issues for which they are responsible. Most staff are responsible for nuclear issues in the context of Iran/North Korea or U.S. nuclear weapons policy. A majority of staff cited “proliferation of nuclear materials” and “illicit trafficking” as the two most concerning risks related to nuclear terrorism.
Staff views are often shaped by their specific legislative portfolios or the responsibilities and issue oversight roles of their committees; as such, staffers typically deal with nuclear issues in specific contexts. Digital survey respondents were asked to indicate which of the following best describe the context in which they are responsible for nuclear issues: Iran/ North Korea, U.S. nuclear weapons policy, nuclear energy, nuclear materials/waste, or nuclear terrorism.
Most digital survey respondents in this study responded that they are responsible for nuclear issues primarily in the context of Iran/North Korea, while another sizable group worked primarily on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Nuclear energy was a distant third substantive area of staff work, while nuclear materials or waste and nuclear terrorism were far less common areas of responsibility. Staffers who worked in these different nuclear contexts tended to prioritize different nuclear security risks. Understanding the key policy areas in which staffers work is critical to framing nuclear security issues for presentation to a congressional audience.
Focus group participants noted that knowledge of nuclear materials often lies with a congressional office’s energy staffer, due to their responsibility for domestic concerns related to nuclear fuel (e.g., waste management and environmental impacts). The issue of global nuclear security, however, is typically held by foreign policy staffers. According to the congressional analytics tool Leadership Directories, these issues rarely overlap in a single legislative staffer’s portfolio. Within the legislative staff community, only 11 percent have responsibility for both foreign policy and energy-related issues. Focus group participants explained that legislative staff do not work regularly with staff outside of their issue areas. Because of this, the global nuclear security issue is often lost somewhere in between. Educational efforts to improve Congress’ management of nuclear security should include both energy and foreign policy staff members to bring these communities together and connect nuclear materials knowledge with international security perspectives.
5. Non-governmental organizations/think tanks and the Congressional Research Service are the most cited sources of information on nuclear security. Staff face significant challenges accessing executive agencies for information (e.g., reliability and availability of legislative liaisons).
Legislative portfolios often cover a wide range of issues. Out of necessity, staffers rely on others to provide detailed information to advise their members or committees. Staffers choose whom they turn to for information based on key criteria, including: reputation, turnaround time, and ease of access. The CRS and reliable NGOs or think tanks were the most popular sources of information among participants in this study. Use of the executive branch as a source of information was surprisingly lower among study participants. Congressional staff face significant challenges in accessing executive agencies for information. Communication with these agencies requires working through a network of legislative liaisons who are reputed to slow down access to information. Staff who have personal relationships with executive branch members are better able to short-circuit this system. In communicating with the executive branch, staff worry that political appointees may provide skewed information favoring their agency. On the other hand, civil society organizations are highly accessible, both digitally and through direct communication, making them an attractive and ready source of information on nuclear security.
Civil society organizations are relied upon heavily to provide important analyses and recommendations to the nuclear security space on Capitol Hill. Efforts should be made to build relationships between civil society organizations and congressional offices. Doing this would provide Capitol Hill staff with a range of perspectives and ideas as policy opportunities arise. Access to the executive branch is complicated by institutional bureaucratic practices. Developing connections between key executive and legislative staff could empower more staff to work around bureaucratic obstacles.
6. Staff who do not handle nuclear security on a regular basis are much less versed in all aspects of the issue than their peers on issue-relevant caucuses or committees. Broadening nuclear security literacy on Capitol Hill will require education on many levels, from technical knowledge to oversight and governance.
Currently, a core group of staff with jurisdictional responsibility or special interest in nuclear security policy shape the congressional conversation on these issues. If nuclear security expertise is limited to a small pool of staff, preserving institutional knowledge in a frequently changing Congress becomes a serious challenge—and may have contributed to the conditions this study seeks to address.
A concerted effort should be made to introduce the new generation of congressional staff to nuclear security through educational and other engagement efforts. Less experienced legislative staff have had significantly fewer opportunities than their predecessors to engage with this issue. Making nuclear security information more accessible to new staff would draw greater attention to the issue and help develop a broader foundation for sustained engagement on Capitol Hill. While “Indirectly Engaged” staff surprisingly rated “technical terminology and jargon” related to nuclear security as their highest knowledge area, this rating is still very low-level at 2.6. This confidence is likely overrated because of the misunderstanding surrounding the term “nuclear security” (as previously discussed). This is a noteworthy point for civil society organizations seeking to engage with congressional staff. Overreliance on technical terminology can muddy the issue and obstruct learning. On the other hand, staff who are already engaged with nuclear security policy could benefit from a deeper-dive into the nuances and complexities of nuclear security issues.
7. Staff agree that gaps exist in both U.S. and global nuclear security efforts, but there is little consensus, or clarity, about what the gaps are or how to address them.
Most congressional staff agree that both U.S. and global nuclear security efforts need improvement.When asked what actions should be taken to improve global nuclear security, however, our interviewees provided a broad range of responses that revealed the absence of any overarching strategy. There were several staff recommendations that stand out as points of agreement.
When asked how gaps or shortcomings in U.S. nuclear security efforts could be improved, the two most recurring themes among interviewees were “concerns about U.S. government personnel responsible for nuclear security,” and “resolving funding shortages.” When asked how global nuclear security could be improved, the two most recurring themes were “reforming international legal frameworks,” and “providing additional funding.” Unfortunately, nearly equal numbers of interviewees answered that they weren’t sure how to improve global or U.S. nuclear security.
Focus group participants believed that the absence of consensus on nuclear security issues is partially attributable to a lack of aggressive, congressionally targeted advocacy by interest groups. They further expounded that the Nuclear Security Summits produced a range of viewpoints on the most pressing nuclear security concerns and the different solutions available, but provided no unified guidance for Congress.
Results of this study indicate that staff are generally aware of the need to improve global nuclear security,but they expressed no clear strategic direction through which to advance these aims. Building from the points of agreement identified by responses to this survey, civil society should work with relevant congressional offices to establish a set of nuclear security priorities. Once priorities are agreed upon,action items should be identified and a roadmap for congressional action should be developed. Specifically defined legislative objectives should form the coreof future congressional engagement efforts. Framingengagement around actionable objectives couldempower congressional staff by helping to makethem better informed partners and stakeholders in the issue.
8. Constituent concern over nuclear security is low. There is no agreement, however, on if or how constituents should be educated on this issue. Most congressional activity around nuclear security is driven by personal interest or committee responsibilities. Many members and staff doubt constituents can or should become a part of the conversation.
Nuclear and radioactive materials are present in most U.S. states and congressional districts. Despite this, nuclear security is not a highly visible constituent issue. Many interviewees believe nuclear security is too technical to be explained to their constituents; some believe that their constituents would be concerned or engaged only after a doomsday event occurred. A significant share of interviewees indicated that they have no interest in engaging with their constituents on this issue, and/or are unsure how to do so. Several interview participants indicated that engaging with constituents on this issue would only serve to create more work for themselves and might cause a counterproductive reaction. On balance, congressional staff are content with maintaining the current status quo involving limited constituent interaction with nuclear security policy.
Absent a cataclysmic nuclear-related or terrorist event at home or abroad, it could be difficult to mount an effective grassroots constituent engagement campaign to improve nuclear security policy in Congress. Efforts to improve nuclear security policy should therefore focus on developing relationships with key stakeholders in government. In the legislative branch, engagement among members of Congress on nuclear security has proven that a member’s personal interest in the issue can yield results. Staff are often an effective means of direct engagement with members of Congress, and provide valuable information and advice to their members or committees. Arguably, staff should be a key focus of continued civil society advocacy and engagement efforts.
9. Congress has been underperforming on nuclear security. Staff suggest the legislative branch should have a larger impact on nuclear security policy than it currently does, but they doubt that Congress can achieve this role. When asked to cite an example of congressional leadership on nuclear security, most respondents mentioned the NunnLugar CTR program.
Staff are generally aware of the history of congressional leadership on this issue (based on their familiarity with the Nunn-Lugar program), and many still believe that Congress should do more than it can do to improve global nuclear security. Based on the congressional staff responses gathered in this study, Congress is underperforming on nuclear security; there appears to be potential for a more proactive role on nuclear security policy-making by the legislative branch.
Congress has proven capable of taking leadership on nuclear security in the past, but today’s Capitol Hill staff underrate the institution’s ability to guide policy on this issue. Providing staff with instructional narratives of historical congressional achievements, along with concrete policy recommendations, could help set the foundation for renewed legislative leadership on nuclear security. Highlighting the accomplishments of their predecessors and current opportunities for engagement will be necessary to inspire today’s congressional staff and their members toward an active role.
10. Democrats and Republicans share similar views on nuclear security with few exceptions. Self-assessed knowledge, prioritization of the issue, and other indicators that were measured are similar across party lines.
When comparing responses across parties, we observed many similarities in nuclear security views among Republican and Democratic staff. Both sides of the aisle appeared to be equally aware of the bipartisan history of nuclear security. One area in which the two groups do differ slightly is in the perception of threats that nuclear security measures are designed to guard against. Republicans interviewed were most concerned with “proliferation of nuclear material”, while Democrats were more focused on “illicit trafficking.” Nearly all Democrats interviewed said they have been involved in legislative activity related to nuclear security, while fewer than half of Republican interviewees said they have worked on nuclear security related legislation.
Republican and Democratic staff do not differ significantly in their views on nuclear security and can be served by the same education and outreach efforts. Recognizing where they do differ (such as concern about risks related to nuclear security), should be used to frame the issue for target audiences. Drawing together these viewpoints and offering a bipartisan educational platform would facilitate broader engagement and coalition-building to advance related legislative objectives.