Rep. Schiff and Sen. Casey Introduce Legislation to Safeguard Nuclear Weapons Material

Official Seal of the US House of Representatives

Thursday, July 16, 2009 Contact: Sean Oblack (202) 225-4176

Rep. Schiff and Sen. Casey  Introduce Legislation to Safeguard Nuclear Weapons Material

WASHINGTON, DC- Coming on the heels of President Obama’s historic trip to Russia, where a framework agreement to reduce American and Russian stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons was reached, Congressman Adam Schiff (D-CA)  and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the Nuclear Trafficking Prevention Act.   The legislation would bolster efforts to deter and prevent nuclear material from falling into the hands of terrorists by establishing nuclear trafficking as a crime against humanity, making it easier to prosecute international nuclear traffickers in U.S. courts, and strengthening penalties for trafficking nuclear material.  Just as the international community has agreed that such acts as slavery and genocide are crimes against humanity, so too should it come together to brand nuclear smuggling a crime against humanity. 

The pattern of undercover busts over the past fifteen years demonstrates that smugglers and other middlemen are willing to take risks to transport these materials not out of ideological zealotry, but rather for commercial gain.  Any effective response to reduce the threat posed by nuclear terrorism must include the imposition of severe and drastic penalties, including lengthy jail sentences, to deter those who are tempted to engage in this trade for personal profit.  The State Department’s Director of Policy Planning, Dr. Anne Marie Slaughter, endorsed this concept in an opinion piece published several years ago prior to her government service.

“All around the world, there remain sources of nuclear material that are poorly secured,” said Rep. Schiff.  “Ranging from research reactors to aging weapons arsenals, these materials pose a grave threat to the United States and other nations, as well as an attractive target for smugglers. We must make every possible effort to stop the deadly trade in nuclear material, and the first step is to establish a global understanding that nuclear trafficking is one of the most serious international crimes – in fact, a crime against humanity. We cannot wait until a nuclear catastrophe to go after the responsible, but must be proactive in our efforts to eradicate nuclear trafficking.”

“As President Obama and other G-8 leaders reaffirmed last week in Italy, the challenge posed by nuclear terrorism is one of the gravest threats the world faces,” said Senator Casey.  “Too often, we hear of individuals arrested for smuggling fissile material or other sensitive components receiving minimal sentences, as short as a few years in prison.  That is unacceptable if we hope to deter such actions, especially when people are motivated by simple greed.    The punishment must fit the scale of the crime, even if the crime is halted in its early stages.  The United States must bolster its own internal laws to strengthen penalties against those who engage in nuclear trafficking and we should forge an international consensus that such acts constitute crimes against humanity.”

The Nuclear Trafficking Prevention Act includes the following provisions:

  • A formal statement of U.S. policy that the transfer of a nuclear weapon or device or of nuclear material or technology for use for terrorist purposes is a crime against humanity and that individuals abetting such activities are liable under customary international law;
  • An amendment to the United States Code that any person seeking to engage or assist in the transfer of nuclear weapons, material, or sensitive nuclear technology to a terrorist organization, or actors thereof, shall be fined no less than $2 million and imprisoned for a minimum period of 25 years;
  • A provision directing the Secretary of State to seek the adoption in the United Nations General Assembly of a resolution recognizing that the transfer of a nuclear weapon, fissile material, and related components for the purpose of an act of terrorism is a crime against humanity and to encourage other nations to adopt stringent national laws imposing severe penalties for individuals who aid or abet acts of nuclear smuggling;

This legislation complements the President’s announcement, made last week at the G-8 Summit held in L’Aquila, of his plan to host a Global Nuclear Security Summit in March 2010.  The Global Nuclear Security Summit will allow discussion of the nature of the threat and develop steps that can be taken together to secure vulnerable materials, combat nuclear smuggling and deter, detect and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism.

Earlier this year, Senator Casey, along with Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), co-founded the Senate Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism Caucus.  The Caucus has already sponsored a briefing with a senior official in the Office of the Vice President to review the Administration's efforts and is planning an event later this summer geared towards bio-terrorism.

Congressman Schiff has long been a leading voice in Congress on securing vulnerable stockpiles of weapons materials. Earlier this year, the House passed Rep. Schiff’s Nuclear Forensics and Attribution Act (H.R. 730). The legislation would strengthen efforts in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to develop techniques for “fingerprinting” nuclear material, and would also encourage the President to negotiate international agreements to govern international nuclear forensics activities.