Backtracking From a Nuclear Weapons-Free World

David Krieger, President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, was all aglow immediately after Barack Obama won the presidency. He expressed his thoughts in an email addressed to “Dear Friends” on November 5, 2008. In electing Obama, Krieger said: “The American people have chosen hope over fear, unity over division.”

The Obama campaign statement that Krieger liked best was: “A world without nuclear weapons is profoundly in America’s interest and the world’s interest. It is our reponsibility to make the commitment, and to do the hard work to make this vision a reality. That’s what I’ve done as a Senator and a candidate, and that’s what I’ll do as President.”

Krieger also quoted Obama as saying: “I will make the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons worldwide a central element of US nuclear policy.”

Krieger then went on in that same email to make a long list of specific steps that Obama had promised to take once elected president:

*lead an international effort to de-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons around the world;

*strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty;

*lock down the loose nuclear weapons that are out there right now;

*secure all loose nuclear materials within four years;

*immediately stand down all nuclear forces to be reduced under the Moscow Treaty and urge Russia to do the same;

*seek Russia’s agreement to extend essential monitoring and verification provisions of the START I (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) before it expires in December 2009;

*work with Russia to take US and Russian ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert;

* work with other nuclear powers to reduce global nuclear weapons stockpiles dramatically by the end of his presidency;

*stop the development of new nuclear weapons;

*seek dramatic reductions in US and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons and material;

*set a goal to expand the US-Russian ban on intermediate-range missiles so that the agreement is global;

*build a bipartisan consensus for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty;

*cut investments in unproven missile defense systems;

*not weaponize space.

On most of these 14 steps that candidate Obama promised to take there has been no evident progress, except for continued funding to secure loose nukes and reducing U.S. and Russian deployed missiles through the New START Treaty. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is totally off the table; the U.S. has continued to invest in missile defense at about prior levels; and the Pentagon has a space command that seeks to weaponize space. Far from not developing new nuclear weapons, the White House gave serious consideration to developing a new bunker-buster nuclear weapon; also, Obama has sunk additional billions into a modernization program that will quadruple the ability to create “pits”, the plutonium triggers to explode missiles.

Before proceeding into a discussion of the nuclear weapons complex and the modernization program, the various nuclear reduction treaties with Russia and earlier with the Soviet Union have been widely hailed as major steps to the elimination of nuclear weapons. There is a definite downside to these treaties, however: what they do is lock in high numbers of ballistic missiles for years to come and thus, actually, slow progress in eliminating nuclear weapons stockpiles. 

The Nuclear Weapons Complex

The United States Department of Energy (DOE) and Department of Defense (DOD) jointly oversee all of the country’s nuclear weapons activities. The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), a branch of the DOD, is responsible for management and security of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex. The complex is made up of eight main nuclear weapons laboratories, plants and facilities across the country, where the research, production, maintenance and dismantlement of nuclear weapons take place.

II. The Modernization Program

The NNSA is charged with the maintenance and reliability of the nuclear weapons stockpile, including the ability to design and produce new nuclear warheads. NNSA has been puushing hard for increased resources to the nuclear weapons complex for “modernization,” which would enhance nuclear warhead production capabilities. The Government Accounting Office has estimated that the cost for modernizing the complex would be more than $150 billion.

The heart of this modernization program would be the construction of three new facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Kansas City, Missouri. At the first two plants, plutonium pit production would increase from 20 to 80 pits a year, with a “surge” capacity of 125 pits. Due to budgetary constraints, the Obama administration is proposing to put off funding the new Los Alamos facility until 2017.

The most recent JASON report, an independent scientific study commissioned by Congress, found that the reliability and safety of the present nuclear weapons stockpile is assured for at least 80 to 100 years.

The Stimson Center, identified as a nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to enhancing international peace and security through rigorous analysis, released a report in early June 2012, estimating costs in support of strategic nuclear offensive forces. The Center estimates that an annual total of $31 billion is spent on nuclear weapons when costs dedicated to strategic offensive forces found in the NNSA of the DOE are included.

Extrapolating these costs over a ten-year period and adding in the modernization costs resulting from development programs to replace ballistic missile submarines and strategic bombers, the Stimson report estimates that the United States will spend between $352 and $392 billion on strategic nuclear offensive forces over the next ten years. The authors of the report emphasize that their cost figures do not include modernization programs like the next-generation aerial refueling tankers, nor does it include all U.S. government spending on nuclear weapons. It is a spending estimate on a single subset: strategic nuclear offensive forces.

III. Environmental and Health Effects

The following statement on environmental and health effects is taken from a 2010 factsheet put out by Peace Action: “The legacy of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex has been one of environmental injustice. From mining to the dumping of nuclear waste, the nuclear chain has had extreme health and environmental consequences for the communities surrounding the nuclear sites. The toxic burden has been placed disproportionately on indigenous communities targeted for mining, testing, research, and waste facilities. U.S. federal law and nuclear policies have been created to allow the nuclear industry to flourish at the expense of the indigenous health, ancestral lands, and ways of life. The over 60 years of nuclear weapons production will cost the United States hundreds of billions of dollars, and over five decades of clean-up, and still there will be contamination for hundreds of generations. Increased nuclear warhead production, particularly with uranium and plutonium (the most carcinogenic matter known to exist) facilities will endanger U.S. communities.”

IV. What Should Be Done on Nuclear Threat Reduction

Besides taking action on many of the 14 specific steps identified by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation as Obama campaign promises, especially the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the most innovative idea for unilateral reduction of nuclear warheads is found in an article published in the Strategic Studies Quarterly by three Air Force strategists and scholars. They call for a reduction to 311 warheads deployed in a triad model, as follows: 100 single warheads deployed in silos; an ICBM carried by 19 of the 20 B-52s or 20s — one bomber would be assumed to be in maintenance at any one time —  and the remainder deployed in nuclear missile-equipped submarines. It is noted that previously the Institute of Air Power Studies called for eliminating the bomber leg of the nuclear triad.

The conclusion of the three Air Force thinkers is that “the actual marginal utility of additional forces is quite small.” The 311 warheads would provide the equivalent of 1,900 megatons of explosive power, or nine and one-half times the amount that former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued in 1965 could incapacitate the Soviet Union by destroying “one-quarter to one-third of its population and about two-thirds of the industrial capacity.”

The reduction to 311 warheads would be a dramatic demonstration of the U.S. determination to honor Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires signatory nations to make significant progress toward the elimination of nuclear weapons. The U.S. could also work more creditably  toward making the Middle East a nuclear weapons-free zone.

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