WASHINGTON -- U.S. Sen. Bob Casey yesterday chastised the Bush administration for "wrongheaded" policies in the global effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
"The administration has shown a blatant disregard for the diplomacy and multilateral cooperation so essential to a strong nonproliferation regime," Mr. Casey, D-Pa., said during a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, citing the American withdrawal in 2001 from the anti-ballistic missile treaty and North Korea's expanded nuclear program.
Mr. Casey chaired the committee meeting, a rare achievement for a freshman senator, especially one who faced tough questions from his opponent on foreign policy issues on the campaign trail last year.
In the race's final weeks, Sen. Rick Santorum said Mr. Casey, then state treasurer, was "unready, unqualified for the office that he seeks at a very critical time in our nation's future."
Mr. Casey countered that the charge was "ridiculous." Soon after winning his seat, he received a post on the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee, which, over the past seven months, has held dozens of hearings on issues ranging from Iraq to Darfur to global climate change.
Chairman Joe Biden, D-Del., asked Mr. Casey to lead yesterday's hearing, "Safeguarding the Atom: Nuclear Energy and Nonproliferation Challenges."
"It's an issue that doesn't get a lot of attention," Mr. Casey said. "But it's critical."
Indeed, the hearing highlighted the expanding workload for the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, as countries begin building more nuclear power plants to meet a soaring demand for energy, particularly in the world's most populous nations, India and China.
There are 435 commercial nuclear power plants operating in 30 countries, Mr. Casey said. Those plants produce about 16 percent of the world's electricity.
Some nations are considering building plants for the first time, including Jordan, Egypt, Indonesia, Turkey, Vietnam and Yemen.
How can the global community ensure that those facilities are used for civilian, not military, purposes?
Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., the ranking Republican on the committee, and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., have introduced a bill that would guarantee a supply of affordable nuclear power to nations that abandon their own uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing facilities, the ingredients needed for weapons programs.
The bill calls for the possible creation of an International Nuclear Fuel Authority.
Andrew Semmel, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, said the Bush administration is already pursuing that approach through diplomacy and existing laws.
The IAEA, an Austria-based organization that promotes the peaceful use of nuclear technology, faces significant budgetary challenges that would only grow if it takes on some of the proposals of the Lugar-Bayh bill.
Mr. Lugar visited the IAEA's facilities last year, and he said it contains aging equipment that will have trouble keeping pace with a growing global nuclear power infrastructure.
The organization, which is largely funded by voluntary contributions, has seen its budget for nuclear inspections increase only moderately in recent years, from $83 million in 2003 to $108 million this year, despite concerns over the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran.
The United States is the largest voluntary contributor, giving $53 million, including $21 million for the nuclear safeguards program, Mr. Semmel said.
Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, praised Mr. Lugar for not yet putting a final price tag on his bill.
"The idea that this government -- with a $3 trillion budget -- should be worried about a $50 million private contribution over something this important is mildly obscene," he said. "That can't be the argument. Take your time. Get it right."
Mr. Casey hasn't decided if he'll support the measure. But he called for continued vigilance on the "nightmarish scenario of a nuclear weapon exploding in an American city."
"We must renew our efforts to reinforce the nuclear nonproliferation regime and prevent additional states from acquiring the deadliest weapons known to humanity," he said.