Nuclear Security: US Government Should Humanize, Not Modernize

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Nuclear Security: US Government Should Humanize, Not Modernize

Outside the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference held in Vienna, Austria last week. (Credit: Theresa Shaffer/psr.org)

Cheating on required monthly exams, low morale, and security lapses are all problems that have been cited in missile facilities across the US. At the third Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference held in Vienna, Austria last week, Eric Schlosser emphasized that it’s a miracle there hasn’t been a catastrophic accident involving nuclear weapons yet, stating, “The problem with luck is that eventually it runs out.” He provided one example out of a thousand mishaps that have occurred, which was the Greensboro incident in 1961 where a hydrogen bomb fell out of a disintegrating B-52 bomber, going through all the firing steps except for one switch that prevented the full detonation of a four-megaton hydrogen bomb in North Carolina. With all of this in mind, it’s clear that something needs to be done to address these serious issues undermining the safety of our nuclear arsenal.  

"A better idea to resolve the safety issues affecting our nuclear arsenal could be to use those funds to actually secure and eliminate radiological materials worldwide and simply work on getting rid of nuclear weapons rather than injecting more money into making new ones."

One idea could be to do what Secretary of Defense Hagel suggested: inject billions of dollars into modernizing these facilities and retraining staff. However, the 2015 “CRomnibus” appropriations bill which passed in the House of Representatives and which President Obama has backed ahead of the Senate vote, does not accomplish these things. President Obama has repeatedly stated the need to secure radiological material worldwide in order to prevent a terrorist or criminal from fabricating a dirty bomb. Yet in this 2015 omnibus bill, funding to combat the proliferation of nuclear materials to terrorists and criminals was cut by 17% from 2014, while at the same time spending on nuclear weapons increased by 5% from last year. Stephen Colbert even criticized President Obama back in October for paying lip service to his Prague 2009 pledge to “secure a world free of nuclear weapons.” It seems like Secretary Hagel’s suggestion isn’t really securing anything but more procurement for the Department of Defense.

A better idea to resolve the safety issues affecting our nuclear arsenal could be to use those funds to actually secure and eliminate radiological materials worldwide and simply work on getting rid of nuclear weapons rather than injecting more money into making new ones. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that $355 billion will be spent on modernizing the nation’s nuclear forces from 2014-2023. Pressure should be placed on the new Congress come January to reduce spending on nuclear weapons in the 2016 budget, since these weapons pose more of a risk than an asset.  

At the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference, the Arms Control Association, along with Physicians for Social Responsibility, Federation of American Scientists, Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, delivered a statement with four practical suggestions of ways President Obama can still work to “reduce global nuclear dangers and move us closer to the elimination of all nuclear weapons.”  These suggestions include:

  1. Diminish the role and significance of nuclear weapons

  2. Accelerate US-Russia nuclear weapons cuts and freeze other nations’ stockpiles

  3. Convene nuclear disarmament summits

  4. Follow through on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)

At the Vienna conference, testimonies of the survivors of Hiroshima and nuclear testing also highlighted something that many people tend to forget when strategizing about the nuclear arsenal, which is the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that result when nuclear weapons are detonated over civilian populations. Setsuko Thurlow, a Hiroshima survivor, provided a statement at the opening session; “As a 13-year-old schoolgirl I witnessed my city of Hiroshima burned in the heat of 4000 degrees Celsius by one atomic bomb.” Following her, Pope Francis delivered a message to the conference: “Spending on nuclear weapons squanders the wealth of nations. To prioritize such spending is a mistake and a misallocation of resources which would be far better invested in the areas of integral human development, education, health, and the fight against extreme poverty. The future and survival of the human family hinges on moving beyond this ideal (of a world without nuclear weapons) and ensuring that it becomes a reality.”

Eighty-two percent of the countries of the world (158 total) attended the Vienna conference. This “Humanitarian Initiative” is clearly a global movement that’s gaining momentum and not going away. We are no longer in the Cold War era needing to modernize our nuclear arsenal. The Cold War ended 24 years ago. The United States should think twice before moving in a backwards direction, wasting billions on the nuclear arsenal while most of the world moves forward. United States policy should reflect the actual future we anticipate: a world without nuclear weapons.

Theresa Shaffer

Theresa Shaffer is the Security Outreach Associate for Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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