For many Americans, nuclear weapons bring up old memories and forgotten associations -- the duck and cover drills of the 1950s, President Reagan's exhortations against the "evil empire," and the plot lines of countless straight-to-video political thrillers. It may then come as a surprise that in 2008 the United States is considering a huge new investment in nuclear weapons.
The U.S. Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration is pushing for an estimated $150 billion to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons and a more "responsive" production network. The centerpiece of this move is called Complex Transformation, a multiyear plan to build new or upgraded facilities at each of the NNSA's eight nuclear weapons-related sites. The plan also calls for building a new nuclear weapon called the reliable replacement warhead, which would replace all deployed weapons in the U.S. arsenal.
This proposal would build on the Bush administration's quiet surge in nuclear weapons spending. Adjusting for inflation, U.S. spending on nuclear weapons has increased by over 13 percent since 2001. More importantly, the U.S. is still spending one-third more than the Cold War average on nuclear weapons.
There are considerable problems associated with the Complex Transformation plan; chief among them are its huge costs, questionable necessity and danger of provoking nuclear proliferation.
Is it too costly? Any way you look at it, $150 billion is a lot of money. But, given the Department of Energy's track record, it could be even more. A report from the Government Accountability Office last year examined 12 major DOE construction projects and found that eight are saddled with cost over-runs ranging from $79 million to $7.9 billion.
Is Complex Transformation necessary? Not likely. A 2007 study by JASON, the independent science group that advises the government on defense issues, confirmed that the existing warhead cores could be viable for 100 years or longer. And since the size of the U.S. arsenal should be moving down, not up, there is no need for a costly upgrade of the production complex.
Is it provocative? Yes. An expanded U.S. nuclear arsenal tells the world that U.S. national security remains dependent on these devastating weapons. At the same time, Washington seeks to convince nations like Iran and North Korea not to produce them. This "do as we say, not as we do" approach encourages nuclear proliferation. If trends continue, nuclear expert Hans Blix forecasts at least a dozen new nuclear powers within 10 years.
Green-lighting a massive investment in nuclear weapons is both premature and foolhardy. For one, the U.S. does not have a clear sense of what its nuclear policy should be going forward. There is a range of opinion among the presidential hopefuls, ranging from Barack Obama's pledge to work toward the elimination of nuclear weapons to Sen. John McCain's statement that "it's naive to say that we will never use nuclear weapons." The last Nuclear Posture Review, which articulates U.S. nuclear policy, was completed in 2001 and needs updating.
The DOE's push to surge nuclear weapons runs contrary to the positions taken by Henry Kissinger, secretary of state under President Nixon; George Shultz, secretary of state under President Reagan; William Perry, President Clinton's secretary of defense; and Sam Nunn, the former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. This group and dozens of other former foreign policy officials are now championing "the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons" as a "bold initiative consistent with America's moral heritage."
But there is a role for civil society as well. This week, posters depicting the devastating consequences of nuclear bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be displayed in the rotunda of the Capitol. Organized by the Hiroshima-Nagasaki A-bomb Exhibition Committee, this weeklong exhibit will conclude with a public hearing at 10 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Capitol exploring the role Wisconsin can play in turning Complex Transformation into nuclear disarmament.
This and other like-minded efforts raise awareness about nuclear weapons and focus on the goals of stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, ending the pursuit of new warheads, and ensuring the dismantlement of existing stockpiles.
Taken together, these steps will encourage the next president to truly relegate nuclear weapons to dim memories and old movies.
Frida Berrigan is a senior program associate with the New America Foundation's Arms and Security Initiative, which is a member of the Campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Free World.
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