Obama’s fizzled nuclear vision
A president that was once a knight in shining armor to the arms control community is increasingly viewed as a disappointment.
By Bryan Bender
03/31/16 09:59 PM EDT
President Barack Obama, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who has called for ridding the world of nuclear bombs and missiles, is hosting world leaders on Friday to discuss the urgent need to prevent the further spread of doomsday weapons.
But he’s drawing fire from arms control advocates who say his policies are undermining those very same goals — by cutting the proposed budget for nuclear security while increasing spending to upgrade the U.S. atomic arsenal. Even the administration leaders overseeing Obama’s efforts acknowledge that budget constraints, souring relations with Russia and an aging U.S. nuclear deterrent have posed unforeseen obstacles to the grand vision of a nuclear-free world that he outlined in an April 2009 speech in Prague.
“Our closest friends and allies are critical, but of course they want us to do more, and we want to do more,” Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, the deputy secretary of energy, told POLITICO in an interview Thursday. As for Obama’s goals for reducing the global nuclear threat, she said, “we can’t achieve those all in this administration. The president has noted that frequently. But we certainly have made a lot of progress.”
Critics outside the administration are far more blunt, saying the nuclear weapons modernization that Obama wants to carry out will increase the chances of an atomic arms race with countries like Russia. They say even the D.C. summit that the president will address on Friday is focused on securing only about 2 percent of the material worldwide that could be fashioned into an atomic bomb.
“I have a hard time calling this a nuclear security summit,” said Bruce Blair, a former Air Force nuclear launch officer who co-founded Global Zero, an international movement seeking the elimination of nuclear weapons that was fueled by Obama’s Prague speech. “The Prague vision has been just empty calories.”
Instead, with U.S.-Russia relations at a post-Cold War low, reports indicating the Islamic State and other terrorist groups are seeking nuclear or radiological material, and North Korea openly threatening nuclear war, a president who was once a knight in shining armor to the arms control community is increasingly viewed as a disappointment — even with his success in negotiating a deal to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
“It is debatable whether other countries will go nuclear,” said Richard Burt, a former ambassador to Germany who negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia. He expressed dismay at Obama’s push for more money to upgrade U.S. nuclear weapons, saying, “We are on the verge of a massive and very expensive program of nuclear modernization across the board.”
Members of Congress have also expressed concern. On the eve of the summit, half a dozen Democratic senators penned a letter to Obama urging him to “redouble” his efforts to reduce nuclear threats.
Obama’s nuclear critics aren’t all your typical peaceniks. Blair’s group, for instance, boasts several former secretaries of state and defense among its supporters. Its other leaders include retired Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, who was the top commander of the U.S. nuclear arsenal before becoming Obama’s vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Blair, who now teaches at Princeton University, contends that the administration’s efforts at keeping nuclear fuel from getting into the wrong hands are missing the bigger picture. That’s because they focus heavily on locking down highly enriched uranium that could be pilfered from civilian research facilities, even though military facilities around the world contain much more bomb-grade material, including in countries like Pakistan that have fewer controls than other nuclear states.
“There is the equivalent of 200,000 nuclear weapons in the world in the form of highly enriched uranium and plutonium,” he added. “That is a lot, and that number has not decreased at all on Obama’s watch.”
By virtually ignoring the other 98 percent of material, he argues, we are “sleepwalking into the future.”
Meanwhile, current and former government officials estimate that efforts spearheaded by the administration to lock up or destroy civilian stockpiles of highly enriched uranium have ultimately been a wash because other facilities have increased their reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel into weapons-grade material. The increase is equal to the same amount, or about 10,000 weapons’ worth.
In their letter to Obama this week, the Democratic senators urged him to dedicate more resources to the International Atomic Energy Agency to “reinforce proliferation barriers” and seek a ban on the production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. They said the administration could also pursue goals such as “ensuring the security of fissile, radiological, and other nuclear materials, eliminating excess nuclear stockpiles, [and] converting or shutting down weapons-grade uranium fueled reactors.”
President Obama has less than ten months to deliver on any of the promises he might make during this week’s Washington D.C. Nuclear Security Summit. That might be enough time to make some final achievements—it is expected that a 1987 treaty on nuclear protection will finally have enough signatories to be put into effect this week, for instance—but it will not be nearly enough time to modernize the United States’ rusting and neglected nuclear infrastructure. While outdated weapons arsenals have long been a target of energy experts and military watchdogs, the safety of nuclear power plants has also taken on a new urgency in the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, before which the suspects reportedly planned an attack on a Belgian nuclear site. In a report issued this month, by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, an anti-proliferation group, seven of 24 countries received the lowest scores possible for the safety of their nuclear facilities. In the United States, more than half of the country’s nuclear reactors are over 30 years old, and a 2014 Pentagon report put a price tag of billions on restoring nuclear weapons infrastructure. The following images are just one look at the weathered reactors, aging planes and Cold War-era command posts that are only becoming more pressing in the age of ISIL and unconventional warfare. Above, Indian Point in Buchanan, New York, nuclear facility was shut down on Tuesday after an inspection revealed about 200 faulty bolts that hold plates together inside the reactor. In the past year, a power failure, transformer fire and alarm fire have all struck the plant, prompting calls to shut down the 40-year-old plant.
They also called on Obama to propose again that the U.S. and Russia reduce their nuclear arsenals to 1,000 weapons and 500 delivery systems apiece, or less than half than they currently have deployed — an issue that causes particular consternation among the arms control community.
Instead, critics argue that the administration is taking steps that undercut overall nuclear security.
The administration’s budget request for countering nuclear proliferation next year is $1.8 billion, or roughly $132 million less than what it sought last year. Meanwhile, spending on nuclear weapons is up $396 million to $9.2 billion, according to an analysis by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, co-founded by former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn and former Republican Sen. Richard Lugar.
The largest proposed reduction is in the Global Material Security program, which is run by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and “has the task of improving the security of nuclear materials around the world, securing orphaned or disused radiological sources, and strengthening nuclear smuggling detection and deterrence,” said Kingston Reif, director for disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.
Sherwood-Randall, who oversees the NNSA and its nuclear weapons labs, said the budget “reflects where we think we can make the most progress in the coming year,” including locking down fissile material, taking fissile material off the global playing field, working to prevent and counter
“The fact the budget is not the same as it was seven years ago reflects the progress we have made on many fronts,” she said.
Yet she acknowledged that the administration faces many competing priorities. “Of course we’d love to have more funding.”
Burt, the former ambassador, acknowledged that nuclear powerhouse Russia is the main impediment to further arms reductions, especially because “Russian nuclear doctrine has become more expansive” as the U.S. has sought to reduce the role of strategic weapons. (Russia is not attending the summit.)
But Burt believes Washington could be doing more to engage Moscow on this issue. “We are at a pretty disappointing state of affairs,” he said.
Blair agrees. “I don’t think we are trying hard enough to bring [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin to the table,” he said.
Reif, meanwhile, said the U.S. could reduce the chances of an arms race by stepping back from particularly destabilizing moves. He reported Friday that the Air Force is considering developing a new nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile that would have the “modularity” to be mounted on a mobile platform — something the U.S. didn’t do even during the Cold War.
“Despite the fact that the United States did not deploy mobile ICBMs during the Cold War and that the Air Force estimates such forces would cost at least $80 billion more over the next 50 years than retaining only silo-based missiles, the service appears poised to design a missile that will keep that option open,” Reif said.
Obama’s deputy energy secretary defends the new investments in the nuclear arsenal, saying they do not come at the expense of reducing overall nuclear dangers.
“We have reduced our reliance on nuclear weapons in this administration through a series of policy decisions taken by the president,” she said. “At the same time, [we are] committed to the investments required to ensure the arsenal is safe, secure and effective at lower numbers. That requires investment in both weapons life extension programs and in infrastructure.”
She also insists that the summit in Washington is poised to make real progress, hoping to secure pledges from numerous countries to turn supplies of highly enriched uranium into low-enriched uranium that cannot be used for weapons. Other goals include seeking a halt to plutonium reprocessing, getting new commitments on helping stop nuclear smuggling and making the global nuclear security summit a biannual tradition.
But for many advocates of halting the spread of nuclear arms, the items not on the agenda are what needs more attention.
“Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are increasing every day,” Blair said. “And they don’t have safety features. We still have Cold War like nuclear operations and doctrine,” which he said raises the risk of miscalculation. “Are we keeping one step ahead of ISIS? Or are we doing too little, too late.”
“We are not really getting rid of this stuff,” Blair added. “It is still being produced.”
Read more: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/03/obama-nuclear-vision-221444#ixzz44XmbiC3c
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