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Waiting For The Nukes Team

During the presidential campaign, experts on preventing nuclear terrorism were almost giddy over Barack Obama's grasp of their issue. Not only was Obama attuned to state-level nuclear proliferation in places like Iran and North Korea, but he also appreciated the far less sexy threat of bomb-usable nuclear materials laying around sites like academic research reactors in Eastern Europe. (Repeat this mantra: Getting the nuclear material is the hard part. Making it go boom is comparatively easy.) Nuke wonks were especially heartened to see how, in his Time "Person of the Year" interview, Obama cited as his top priorities the economy, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, and climate change--in that order. In an only-in-Washington moment, one nonproliferation expert giddily called another to crow: "We beat global warming!"

Yet neither Einhorn nor Samore--nor the 10 staffers he is said to be overseeing--have yet been installed in their jobs. Nor have a slew of other people tasked with securing, relocating or destroying stashes of bomb-usable nuclear material around the world. Also vacant are important State Department positions like the assistant secretary for nonproliferation and the assistant secretary for verification, compliance, and implementation. (The latter is a Russia-centric post likely going to Rose Gottemoeller, a former Clinton energy department official who focused on nukes.) Smart nuclear-threat watchers rave about this team as "top-notch." But they're also itching to see them hit the ground running ASAP. "Let's go!" says one observer. "Let's get it on!" (Some progress: CSIS nonproliferation pro Jon Wolfsthal will soon be moving to Joe Biden's office to focus on these issues, Laura Rozen reports.)

At the same time, there's some concern in the field that the delay in officially naming the new team is a bad omen--that the deluge of more pressing issues (the economy, Pakistan, Gaza) has once again distracted attention from the incremental and unglamorous work of securing nuclear materials in cities whose names may lack for vowels, or forging international protocols to secure and monitor the stuff bombs are made of. Some experts are also waiting for more specifics about the new White House WMD czar's job description. One expert frets that with a broad job mandate, "the things that are ALREADY getting sustained high-level attention, because things happen that push them to the front of the agenda -- like Iran and North Korea -- will get all the attention, and the things that aren't getting sustained high-level attention because they are ongoing states of being that don't change very much (like bad security for nuclear materials) still won't get much sustained high-level attention." By contrast, argues a presidential transition paper [PDF] written by experts at the Harvard Kennedy School's Project on Managing the Atom, the czar's "sole responsibility [should] be to wake up every morning thinking, what can I do to prevent a nuclear terrorist attack?'" Hard to argue with that. It'd be good to see a person who thinks that way behind a White House desk as soon as possible.

 --Michael Crowley