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More Money for Nuclear Security

Thursday, May 2, 2002

After Sept. 11, President Bush vowed that fighting the war against terrorism would become the main focus of his presidency. But the administration is apparently giving short shrift to the security needs of the nation's nuclear arms and nuclear-waste stockpiles.

In March, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham wrote a letter to the Office of Management and Budget requesting a total of $379.8 million to better protect nuclear weapons and radioactive-waste stockpiles.

"Failure to support these urgent security requirements is a risk that would be unwise," Abraham warned in the letter, which was recently obtained by The New York Times. "We are storing vast amounts of materials that remain highly volatile and subject to unthinkable consequences if placed in the wrong hands."

Of Abraham's total laundry list, the OMB has approved just $26.4 million for congressional consideration, including $7 million for a security assessment, and $20 million to better respond to incidents involving nuclear weapons.

Asked about the administration's failure to better fund Abraham's security requests, an Energy Department spokeswoman told The Times "our nuclear weapons complex is among the most secure facilities in the world." Perhaps someone should have told that to Abraham before he wrote to OMB warning of the department's vulnerabilities.

Since Sept. 11, the Bush administration has been nearly fanatical in its insistence on official secrecy, and it's a good bet that Abraham's letter would have never seen the light of day if it hadn't been leaked to the media by, The Times reports, "someone who favors more spending on nuclear security."

But given the decision to ignore most of the department's security-related requests, one wonders whether the Bush administration's mania for secrecy, at least in this case, is intended to protect national security, or simply to provide political damage control.

"Should we give Enron executives the $250 million tax break President Bush proposed, or should we use that money to secure our country against a nuclear attack using our own nuclear materials?" asks David J. Sirota, spokesman for the Democratic minority staff of the House Appropriations Committee. Under the circumstances, that's not a bad question.

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