Monday, June 29, 2009

Test of Resolve, Part 2

"Our Decaying Nuclear Deterrent," an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, reinforces a point I made here several weeks back: That the Obama administration, by nixing nuclear weapons modernization efforts and pushing ratification of a permanent test ban, is setting the nation on a dangerous course of disarmament by default (the authors call it "disarmament by unilateral obsolescence").

My interest in this issue dates back at least ten years. It resulted in a number of pieces -- here, here, here -- in which I warned about events that are unfolding today.

Here's an excerpt from today's Journal:

"There are some who believe that failing to invest adequately in our nuclear deterrent will move us closer to a nuclear free world. In fact, blocking crucial modernization means unilateral disarmament by unilateral obsolescence. This unilateral disarmament will only encourage nuclear proliferation, since our allies will see the danger and our adversaries the opportunity.

By neglecting -- and in some cases even opposing -- essential modernization programs, arms-control proponents are actually undermining the prospect for further reductions of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. As our nuclear weapons stockpile ages and concern about its reliability increases, we will have to compensate by retaining more nuclear weapons than would otherwise be the case. This reality will necessarily influence future arms-control negotiations, beginning with the upcoming Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty follow-on. . . .

. . . .There is a fashionable notion that if only we and the Russians reduced our nuclear forces, other nations would reduce their existing arsenals or abandon plans to acquire nuclear weapons altogether. This idea, an article of faith of the "soft power" approach to halting nuclear proliferation, assumes that the nuclear ambitions of Kim Jong Il or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would be curtailed or abandoned in response to reductions in the American and Russian deterrent forces -- or that India, Pakistan or China would respond with reductions of their own.

This is dangerous, wishful thinking. If we were to approach zero nuclear weapons today, others would almost certainly try even harder to catapult to superpower status by acquiring a bomb or two. A robust American nuclear force is an essential discouragement to nuclear proliferators; a weak or uncertain force just the opposite."

Those interested in this topic might also read the related article from a recent USA Today, pasted below:

WASHINGTON — President Obama plans deep new cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal at a time when the government faces a 15-year backlog of warheads already waiting to be dismantled and a need for billions of dollars in new facilities to store and dispose of the weapons' plutonium. The logjam of thousands of retired warheads will grow considerably based on a promise made in April by Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to get their stockpiles far below levels set by current disarmament pacts.

Yet much of the infrastructure needed to dispose of those weapons don't exist yet, according to federal audits and other records reviewed by USA TODAY. Dismantling the retired warheads — not counting the additional weapons that Obama wants to eliminate — will take until 2024, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the weapons program.

The schedule for disposing of the plutonium cores from those weapons runs past 2030. Building the necessary plants and storage facilities "is expensive … (and) is going to take a long time," says Linton Brooks, a former arms negotiator who headed the nuclear security administration from 2002 to 2007. "That doesn't stop the president from taking more warheads off missiles and bombers and (adding to) to the backlog. It means the queue gets a lot longer."

Among the challenges:

• The Texas storage site for the plutonium "pits" from dismantled weapons could have capacity shortages by 2014, according to an inspector general audit earlier this year and a separate 2008 report by a federal oversight board.

• A plant to convert those pits into a form that can be processed into fuel for nuclear power reactors — the current disposal plan — hasn't been sited and isn't slated to be built until 2021. Projected cost: nearly $4 billion.

• A $4.8 billion plant being built to do final processing of the plutonium into mixed oxide reactor fuel at the Savannah River (S.C.) nuclear weapons site isn't slated to be running until 2016. Obama's 2010 budget plan would boost spending for weapons disposition by $4 million, or 5%, to $84 million, according to the nuclear administration.

Timelines for eliminating the current backlog of retired warheads and the added weapons Obama wants to cut will depend on how far the reductions ultimately go, says Tom D'Agostino, head of the nuclear administration. He notes that a "nuclear posture review," due this fall, will help determine how much more storage and dismantlement capacity is needed. "There are infrastructure hurdles, but … until that review is done, substantial infrastructure changes would be premature," D'Agostino says. "I'm very impressed with the dismantlement rate," he adds, noting it has risen more than 150% since 2006.

Specific disassembly figures are secret, but a study of available data by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Federation of American Scientists finds that, despite the rate increase, the Bush administration dismantled the fewest warheads per year since the Eisenhower era.

About 2,700 warheads remain deployed, 2,500 are in operational reserve and 4,200 are awaiting disassembly, the report says. Cuts by Obama could add a few thousand to that. "No effort has really been made to transform (the nuclear weapons program) to meet the mission of nuclear weapons elimination," says Robert Alvarez, a scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior adviser at the Energy Department, which oversees the nuclear administration. Program funds "have gone mostly to maintain what we now recognize is an oversized nuclear stockpile."

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