The Nuclear Weapons Council (NWC), a group of senior officials from the Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, has announced that it is moving forward with the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, a proposal that aims to build the next generation of U.S. nuclear weapons.
The council didn’t even seem to notice that one of its major justifications for the RRW program-a fear that the plutonium “pits” that trigger nuclear weapons were becoming unstable-was completely rejected two days earlier by JASON, a prestigious scientific advisory group. On November 29, JASON released a report stating that the pits remain dependable for at least 100 years. The previous estimate of pit life expectancy was only 45 years, and the oldest pit in the current U.S. nuclear stockpile is 30 years old.
If we have 70 years until plutonium warheads become undependable, why are we in such a hurry to build new ones? After all, the current stockpile is based on 50 years of research with more than 1,000 underground nuclear tests and is regularly deemed “safe and reliable” by nuclear experts.
Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), father of the RRW program, responded to the JASON report by advising the council to “take a breath because — Congress is not going to be as robust about this.” With a $150 billion price tag, it’s not hard to see why, especially considering the Department of Energy’s terrible record on project management.
High-tech nuclear weaponry also does nothing to help American efforts in Iraq, a low-tech counterinsurgency operation that just lost Republicans a majority in both houses of Congress.
The JASON report brought the relevance of the RRW program into question for no less a supporter than Hobson, but the Bush administration seems committed to charging full steam ahead regardless of the advice from a nonpartisan group of Nobel laureate scientists. The administration is dangerously underestimating the risks involved.
RRW could lead the United States to test a new nuclear weapon, something we haven’t done since 1992. Although NWC officials claim that computer simulations will make testing unnecessary, it is unlikely that political and military leaders will pin the safety of hundreds of millions of Americans on an untested device. Resumed U.S. testing could lead other countries to buck the international testing ban and enhance their own nuclear capabilities, essentially opening Pandora’s Box.
The RRW program could also severely undermine global nonproliferation efforts. The 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty requires countries to initiate disarmament “at an early date.” If the United States builds new weapons and ignores its obligation to work towards disarmament, other states may take it as a sign of bad faith and try to acquire nuclear weapons too.
New American weapons will do little to slow the emerging nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. Both Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il cite the overwhelming superiority of the American nuclear arsenal as a justification for their aggressive nuclear brinksmanship. If we start building even more powerful weapons, the two countries will feel as though they have no choice but to fully go nuclear.
U.S. nuclear supremacy failed to prevent 9/11, and a new generation of weapons will not stop the next terrorist attack. Organizations like al Qaida are unlikely to stop their quest for nuclear devices just because the United States constructs fancier warheads.
RRW will introduce many dangerous new possibilities, but will fail to solve any of our fundamental challenges. Our current stockpile of over 10,000 warheads-every one of which is capable of inflicting massive damage-more than exceeds our national security requirements.
The burden of being the world’s only superpower sometimes weighs heavily on all Americans, but building a new generation of nuclear weapons is not a logical response.
Instead of carelessly spending hundreds of billions of dollars on warheads that actually would make America less safe, we should strengthen global nonproliferation standards and work with other countries to create an international environment where the possession of nuclear weapons is unnecessary.
Travis Sharp is the Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, D.C. Formed in 1980, the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation has been a leader in all the key arms control struggles of the late 20th century. Based in Washington, D.C., the center serves as the nation’s chief “watchdog” of the U.S. Congress and Executive Branch on a range of arms control issues.