The News on Nukes

May 8, 2009 |
Obama cannot unilaterally get rid of all the United States nuclear weapons tomorrow -- even if that's what he wanted to do.
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At the United Nations, representatives from the world's 190 or so nations are meeting (in typical fashion) to prepare to meet. The preparatory meeting of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is taking place the first two weeks of May to get ready for the Review Conference of the Treaty, which will happen next year. Closer to home this week, Congress heard from its Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States. And the Department of Energy released its budget for 2010 requesting $6.4 billion for nuclear weapons programs out of an overall budget of $26.4 billion.

In all of this nuclear attention, there is good, bad and mixed news, all of which is taking place against the background of President Barack Obama's historic Prague speech, in which he pledged to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. The president also identified immediate, concrete measures toward that goal, including negotiating a new treaty with Russia involving deep cuts in our respective nuclear arsenals; seeking ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT); accelerating spending designed to eliminate "loose nukes" and bomb-making materials (plutonium and enriched uranium) in Russia and beyond; and ending all new production of bomb-making materials worldwide.

The Good News

Over the last eight years, the United States all but dropped out of the NPT process. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970. It sets up a bargain between the nations that possessed nuclear weapons at the time -- the United States, the Soviet Union, France, China, and the United Kingdom -- and the rest of the world. While nuclear-haves work to dismantle their arsenals, the nuclear-have-nots won't pursue nuclear weapons programs. The carrot in the mix was the "peace atom:" allowing non-nuclear states access to nuclear technologies for energy.

The NPT regime has been under assault by the slow pace of nuclear disarmament and the spike in nuclear proliferation outside the treaty by Israel, India, North Korea, and Pakistan. Iran appears to be close behind, and the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission warns that as many as a dozen other nations have the ability to develop nuclear weapons capabilities within the next decade.

Given all of this, there was palpable relief following Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller's presentation at the 2009 preparatory meeting, which began on Monday, May 4th. The head of the U.S. delegation read a message from Obama in which he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to the treaty and called for collaboration, saying, "we must define ourselves not by our differences, but by our readiness to pursue dialogue and hard work to ensure the NPT continues to make an enduring contribution to international peace and security." Gottemoeller then described U.S. support for the each of the three pillars of the Treaty: disarmament, nonproliferation, and nuclear energy. Perhaps most dramatically, she called on all countries to abide by the NPT, singling out India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea by name as nations not in compliance with the treaty, and calling the development of effective consequences for treaty violators a priority. Her statement and full participation in the meetings stands in marked contrast to the track record over the last eight years, and signals U.S. seriousness about international cooperation.

The Mixed News

Congress gave a blue ribbon collection of strategic sages -- former lawmakers and nuclear laboratory directors, retired Pentagon and Department of Energy officials, and representatives from research institutions like the National Institute for Public Policy -- the task of examining the long-term strategic posture of the United States and making recommendations about what the future shape of that posture should be. Those recommendations were released this week in a 360-page report.

While nothing in the report purports to set policy for the Obama administration, the commission's recommendations will be taken into consideration as the administration begins work on its Nuclear Posture Review scheduled to be released late this year or early next year. Read with an eye towards the future of nuclear policy, against the backdrop of Obama's pledge to seek a world free of nuclear weapons, the report offers up a somewhat confused picture. On the one hand, the commission acknowledges the "final abolition of nuclear weapons" as a goal and asserts that the use of nuclear weapons should be a "defensive last resort." It also observes that the "moment appears ripe for a renewal of arms control." The Bush administration's nuclear posture asserted the possibility of a first use of nuclear weapons, failed to mention abolition, and as a rule took a dim view of arms control regimes.

But on the other side of the ledger, the commission couldn't reach consensus on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty -- seen by the rest of the world as a critical litmus test of the U.S. commitment to eventual nuclear disarmament. Just as alarming, within the context of promoting a "lead and hedge" policy, in which the United States simultaneously leads disarmament efforts and maintains a strategic hedge of nuclear weapons, the commission asserts the necessity of the nuclear laboratories' warhead "life extension program," calling on the laboratories to maintain the ability to design new nuclear weapons. This can be understood as a back door to new weapons designs because the nuclear labs have used "life extension" to introduce new design elements into at least two types of nuclear warheads. In the same vein, the commission's urging that the labs maintain their weapons design capabilities opens the door to billions of dollars in spending on a veritable wish-list of high-tech computer modeling, lasers, imaging systems, and new facilities.

The Bad News

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced his department's budget requests for fiscal year 2010. Amid a lot of fanfare about renewable resources and sustainability was a Bush-like $6.4 billion for the National Nuclear Security Administration's continued work on nuclear weapons technologies, facilities, and designs.

This request is in line with the NNSA's longer term plans for upgrading the nuclear weapons complex over the next two decades, an endeavor that could cost tens and tens of billions of dollars. Besides being expensive, the plan for so-called Complex Transformation was crafted during the Bush administration, and is obsolete now that the Obama administration has pledged to dramatically accelerate the reduction of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. A $6 billion-plus budget for moving forward on nuclear weapons research and development while negotiating for nuclear nonproliferation and pledging a nuclear-weapons-free world sends mixed signals to allies, provides political cover to adversaries, and makes it more difficult to persuade Iran and North Korea to roll back their nuclear programs.

Another Chance

Obama cannot unilaterally get rid of all the United States nuclear weapons tomorrow -- even if that's what he wanted to do.

But he can halt these expensive and short-sighted nuclear weapons plans with a stroke of his pen when the budget comes back to him in a few months. In that way, he can reconcile the U.S. nuclear weapons budget and U.S. nuclear weapons policy.

And that would be good news from Washington for the whole world.