Ridding the world of nuclear weapons won’t be the way George Bush will be remembered, but the fact is this week he personally authorized a sizeable reduction of the U.S. nuclear arms inventory. Over three-quarters of the U.S. atomic weapons that were stock-piled at the end of the cold war have now been or are about to be destroyed.
For obvious security reasons our government is not saying exactly how many units of our existing nuclear arsenal are being taken “off-line” and then being permanently disposed of, but we do know that America started the year with about 6,000 nuclear bombs under its control. Some of those are deployed but most are in reserve.
Further we know that under terms of a 2002 arms control treaty with Russia, the U.S. is committed to reducing the number of deployed warheads to between 1,700 and 2,200 by 2012.
Our shrinkage should not be miss-read for a sign of weakness. We all have a theoretical understanding of the damage a single nuclear war head would cause. And our technology keeps improving. Actually, it may be very hard to conceive of life after even one modern warhead from a sophisticated high technology state was detonated. Intense radiation in the wind and water would waste crops around the world, even far from the complete devastation at ground zero.
Thus, it would seem logical to assume that even the worst disasters we could imagine would not call for the use of over 2,000 nuclear devices. In war, about ten or twelve explosions would finish off the world for quite awhile. In use against an incoming meteor of size or some other extraterrestrial force, we might find a need to blast off quite a lot of our nukes in an effort to destroy it. Yet if any of these accidentally rained back down upon us, it would be yet another plausible doomsday scenario.
But for now consolidation, not elimination, is the name of the game. For quite awhile, the Energy Department has been examining ways to consolidate the complex of weapons stockpile-related facilities at eight major locations across the country. According to Associated Press reports, “they include federal research laboratories and other sites involved in nuclear stockpile stewardship and warhead dismantlement.”
"Today’s nuclear weapons complex needs to move from the outdated Cold War complex into one that is smaller, safer, more secure and less expensive," said Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees nuclear warhead programs within the department.
The idea under active consideration is to move all the special nuclear material used in weapons to five sites by the end of 2012 while reducing the overall work force by about 25 percent.
Bowing to what would be local political pressure if any one or two sites were completely shut down, the plan is for about 600 buildings or structures to be closed or shifted to non-weapons activities. At least two testing facilities supporting weapons labs will be closed.
Certainly, the consolidation reflects the reduction in size of the warhead stockpile, but it also has been prompted by growing concern over the ability to provide adequate security to the larger complexes. Indeed, security demands have increased sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Our new plans basically call for the concentration of our discarded nuclear materials in five main areas where each can be highly guarded and safely tracked if being moved in from another site.
But one part of our nuclear plans has been temporarily de-railed by the U.S. Congress which eliminated an $88 million dollar authorization which would have funded the first stage start-up on designing and implementing a state of the art warhead that would eventually replace the existing, aging warheads.
The broad omnibus spending bill just approved by Congress eliminated money for the Reliable Replacement Warhead for the current fiscal year. The administration had asked for $88 million for design and preliminary work on the proposed warhead.
In waltzed the diplomats or the peace-nicks or whatever one decides to call them:
"This (warhead) would have sent the wrong signal around the world encouraging the very proliferation we are trying to prevent," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a critic of the new warhead program.
But the United States cannot formulate its defense policy on the basis of signals and encouragement. We must simply do those things that make sense for a powerful nation desiring peace for itself and the world. One thing that does not make any sense is to refuse to modernize, because because modernization would “send the wrong message to the world.” It would be much saner to quit sending so much “mail” to the world while simply going about our own business. And that business must be symbolized, as it has been since the nation was founded, by an eagle. The eagle in one set of talons holds an olive branch of peace and goodwill. And in the other, it holds the best arrows technology can create and money can buy.
We must modernize, not surrender, our nuclear arsenal. That will take money, time and — yes — underground testing. Let’s get serious about maintaining our deterrent.