Nuclear Weapons

The Biggest Year for Nuclear Disarmament

Titan II nuclear missile in its Cold War silo.

This year is one of the biggest opportunities we’ve had since the end of the Cold War to make significant progress toward a nuclear weapons free world. Maintaining the status quo of more than 23,000 nuclear weapons worldwide is just too dangerous; so many weapons around the world increase the risk of an accidental launch with deadly consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. A quick look at the calendar confirms that 2010 will be a pivotal year:

  • New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) announced and Senate debate over US ratification (January estimate)
  • Fiscal Year 2011 Budget released (February)
  • Nuclear Posture Review released (March 1 estimate)
  • Global Nuclear Security Summit (April 12-13)
  • Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference (May)
  • Possible senate debate on ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (late in 2010 if at all)

Major nuclear weapons treaties up for ratification by the Senate. Major international conferences on nuclear weapons. Key policy and budget documents from the administration. It’s a packed agenda for the first six months of the year. As activists, you and I need to hit the ground running to ensure we’re making the most of each of these opportunities. If ever there was a time to be active and organize on nuclear weapons issues, this year is it.

New START

The US and Russia will return to the negotiating table on Monday to finish hammering out a follow on agreement to START. The treaty will reduce both US and Russian deployed nuclear weapons to between 1,500 and 1,675 and limit the number of delivery vehicles. Reports vary on what issues remain as sticking points, with some citing sharing telemetry data and others citing missile defense. According to the Washington Post:

The United States now wants the treaty signed by May to set an example for a conference it hopes will bolster the global Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

“If you and the Russians control 95 percent of the nuclear weapons and you’re not reducing, you’re going to weaken your hand if you’re pressing for tighter measures” to rein in other nations’ nuclear programs, said Steven Pifer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Once an agreement is announced, the treaty will go to the Senate for a ratification debate. Expect that to take a while – the Senate still isn’t done dealing with healthcare legislation. The healthcare debate showed just how hard it is to move anything through the Senate, and a supermajority of 67 votes will be needed for New START’s ratification. While there is broad bipartisan support for reducing our nuclear arsenal, it will be important for our supporters to repeatedly show their senators that they favor making the world a safer place by reducing the number of nuclear weapons in the world.

Meanwhile, 41 senators (all Republicans and Independent Joe Lieberman) are making hay with a letter to Obama stating that “modernization” of our nuclear arsenal (read new nuclear weapons) are needed. The Wall Street Journal jumped on the bandwagon, publishing an atrocious editorial against reducing our arsenal with a lot of false claims about the need for new nuclear weapons. While the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty is unlikely to be dealt with until late in 2010, if at all, Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) is raising objections to any type of arms control in the context of the START debate and has already promised that he “will lead the charge against [the CTBT] and I will do everything in my power to see that it is defeated.”

Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione deftly picks apart the Wall Street Journal’s argument:

By claiming that U.S. nuclear weapons are in serious disrepair and that removing any of the 9,400 nuclear weapons in the arsenal would threaten national security, the Journal’s editors help create public fear of changing obsolete Cold War nuclear policies.…

First, the Journal claims: “The deteriorating U.S. nuclear arsenal is emerging as a big security problem.” Not true. U.S. weapons are safe, secure, and effective. No science-based study has found otherwise. The most recent report from JASON — a premier U.S. defense advisory panel of scientists — found no evidence that aging posed any threat to the usability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The JASON report said, “Lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence.” In an earlier study, JASON scientists found that the plutonium cores of these weapons are reliable for at least 100 years. In other words: The nukes are alright.

The U.S. government spends almost $6 billion a year on stockpile stewardship programs that maintain the massive nuclear arsenal. Some, like the Journal, want new facilities and new bomb production plants, but the Government Accountability Office has found that such plans would cost $150 billion. This is overkill.

The Budget

In February, we’ll see if key nuclear weapons facilities that support increased nuclear weapons productions receive a boost in funding or not. Keep an eye out for funding levels for nuclear non-proliferation programs that secure loose nuclear material around the globe. Obama has stated he’d like to secure all loose nuclear material in his first four years and he’ll need to put a big chunk of money into these programs to achieve that laudable goal.

We’ll also see if the new nuclear weapon known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead, which we defeated with your help 2 years running, is resurrected under a new name or not. One program to keep a close eye on was mentioned by Undersecretary of state for arms control and international security Ellen Tauscher:

A reliable replacement for the now-dead Reliable Replacement Warhead program will be funded in U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2011 budget, said the woman most responsible for killing the RRW in 2008….

The Stockpile Management program would permit the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to “refurbish” aging nuclear warheads to ensure that they still work and are safe, Tauscher said. During refurbishment, features could be added to the warheads to make them theft-proof and more environmentally friendly, she said.

But the warheads cannot be “improved” in the sense that they are made into more effective weapons, and they cannot be tested by exploding sample warheads.

Nuclear Posture Review

Throughout 2009, Peace Action West and other groups worked to highlight to the Obama administration the need for a transformative Nuclear Posture Review – the official document that will set US nuclear weapons policy for the next 5-10 years. The review will answer important questions like what purpose nuclear weapons have in defending the US, when we would use them, and how many nuclear weapons we need to have. Reports over the summer indicated a tug of war within the administration over the direction of the review. Now, the Nuclear Posture Review has been delayed. Originally due February 1st, it’s been pushed back to March 1st. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Officials in the Pentagon and elsewhere have pushed back against Obama administration proposals to cut the number of weapons and narrow their mission, according to U.S. officials and outsiders who have been briefed on the process.

In turn, White House officials, unhappy with early Pentagon-led drafts of the blueprint known as the Nuclear Posture Review, have stepped up their involvement in the deliberations and ordered that the document reflect Obama’s preference for sweeping change, according to the U.S. officials and others, who described discussions on condition of anonymity because of their sensitivity and secrecy.

International Conferences

Finally, we’ve got two big international conferences this year. The first, a Global Nuclear Security Summit in April, will address securing loose nuclear material and preventing nuclear terrorism. Next, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference will be held in New York in May. There’s more momentum headed into the conference this year due to President Obama’s stated goal of pursuing a safer world free of nuclear weapons. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Deputy Director of Nonproliferation Deepti Choubey:

American leadership will be crucial for a successful NPT Review Conference, and the rest of the world will be looking for concrete action to back up President Obama’s call for nuclear disarmament. Although ratification of the START follow on will be an important step, most countries will view the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as the key piece of evidence that the U.S. brings to the Review Conference. Choubey says the best outcome would be an NPR that narrows the purpose and role of nuclear weapons, acknowledges the U.S.’s NPT commitments, and reconciles currently conflicting messages and nuclear policies.

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