The Nuclear Security Summit process as well as 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. Terrorist organizations with a history of pursuing nuclear materials (including al Qaeda and the Islamic State) have similarly diffused across the world as they lose territory in traditional strongholds.
The task of plugging the gaps and reducing material stockpiles is likely to be more challenging now that the summit process has come to an end. Cooperation with countries that pose significant nuclear security risks remains limited; Congress has restricted nuclear security cooperation with Russia and taken initial steps to constrain cooperation with China. Meanwhile, U.S. budgets for nuclear security continue to decline while funding to sustain and upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons trends upward.
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.