Thursday, February 07, 2008

House Committee Misdirects Debate on Proliferation Prevention Initiative

Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman testified today in a hastily scheduled hearing in the House Energy and Commerce Committee to explore diversion of funds under the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP). After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many scientists and engineers with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) knowledge and expertise suffered significant cuts in pay or lost their government-supported work. The U.S. was concerned these scientists might sell their expertise to terrorists or countries of concern and established the IPP program under the Department of Energy (DOE) in 1994.

The efficacy of the program has been increasingly criticized and was the subject of a January 23, 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report entitled “Nuclear Nonproliferation: DOE Needs to Reassess Its Program to Assist Weapons Scientists in Russia and Other Countries.” The GAO was asked to assess (1) DOE's reported accomplishments for the IPP program, (2) DOE's exit strategy for the program, and (3) the extent to which the program has experienced annual carryovers of unspent funds and the reasons for any such carryovers. Among other key assessments, mismanagement chief among them, the GAO found:

  1. DOE has overstated accomplishments on the number of scientists receiving DOE support and the number of long-term, private sector jobs created.
  2. DOE has not developed an exit strategy for the IPP program and recently expanded the program to new areas including providing assistance to scientists in Iraq and Libya. Most importantly, through the IPP program, the DOE is working to develop projects that support a controversial program, the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership to expand the use of civilian nuclear power.
  3. In every fiscal year since 1998, DOE carried over unspent funds in excess of the amount that the Congress provided for the program. Two main factors have contributed to this recurring problem—lengthy review and approval processes for paying former Soviet weapons scientists and delays in implementing some IPP projects.

The GAO recommended, among other things, that DOE conduct a fundamental reassessment of the IPP program, including the development of a prioritization plan and exit strategy.

Most significantly, nowhere in the report did the GAO mention issues of diversion of U.S. funds from Russia to support the Bushehr reactor in Iran. However, Michigan Representatives John D. Dingell, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Bart Stupak, chairman of that committee’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee, are choosing to focus on this issue through letters, articles and hearings. My colleague Leonor Tomero has been closely reviewing the IPP and notes that Congress should truly be concerned about the very real issue of fund diversion to the controversial Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

However, Representatives Dingell and Stupak are concentrating on an essentially non-existent issue, claiming that the IPP program is providing funding for the Bushehr reactor through, for example, the Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems in Nizhny Novgorod, which is making control room equipment for the reactor. They sent a letter to Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman on February 6 in which they asked: “What policy logic justifies D.O.E. funding Russian institutes which are providing nuclear technology to Iran? How does this advance our non-proliferation goals?”

The Department of Energy responded in a statement, “We are confident that none of the projects cited by the House committee, or any of the department’s scientist engagement projects with Russia, support nuclear work in Iran.”

In the New York Time articles by Matthew Wald published on February 7, Representative Dingell said, “Only this administration would complain about proliferation in Iran, as part of President Bush’s axis of evil, and then finance it with American taxpayer dollars.” Meanwhile, Representative Stupak called it “schizophrenic foreign policy” and said “We should not be doing business with institutes that help promote Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

The fact that Russia is cooperating with Iran on the Bushehr reactor is not the heart of the matter and only deters focus from the real issues surrounding the efficacy of the IPP program. Although, given his voting record on Iran, it is not so curious that Representative Stupak in particular is choosing to misdirect the debate on issues surrounding the IPP to Russian cooperation with Iran.

It should, however, be noted that the Bush administration has indeed flip-flopped on the Bushehr issue. While the U.S. initially opposed Russian participation in building the Bushehr reactor and supplying it with fuel, the Bush administration changed its position last year in order to get Russian support for United Nations sanctions on Iran. The reversal in the U.S. position on the Bushehr reactor also followed Iran’s agreement to return spent nuclear fuel from the reactor back to Russia to ensure it doesn't extract plutonium to make nuclear weapons. The Bush administration has since been pointing to the Bushehr program to support arguments that Iran does not need a uranium enrichment program.

The Bushehr reactor is expected to start-up in 2009 and Iran received the final shipment of uranium fuel from Russia on January 28. The fuel, around 82 tons, is now in storage, sealed and under constant camera surveillance, per Russia’s demands, and subject to enhanced International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards verification procedures. The nuclear fuel will not be loaded into the reactor until all construction and testing work is complete, which is expected in Fall 2008.

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