The News on Nukes

It's not
on the front pages of what is left of U.S. newspapers. The headlines
are dominated by violence in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, by Miss
America's semi-nude photo scandal, and by the Chrysler fiasco. But just
about everyone who is anyone is talking about nuclear weapons this week.

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

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

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 forupgrading
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.

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