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Nuclear weapons: Shift in U.S. policy
NewsNotes, May-June 2009

President Barack Obama has begun a dramatic shift in U.S. nuclear weapons policy. Speaking on April 5 in Prague, Czech Republic, Obama said, “Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st. And as a nuclear power - as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon - the United States has a moral responsibility to act. We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

Four days earlier President Obama met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In a joint statement they acknowledged their obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) to work towards nuclear disarmament and engage the other nuclear weapons states in arms control efforts. As a first step they directed negotiators to begin talks on a bilateral strategic arms control treaty to be concluded by the end of the year. The new agreement would replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty II (START II) which expires in December 2009.

Prior to START I, Russia and the United States each deployed over 10,000 nuclear warheads. Today each country deploys 2,000-3,000. A new agreement would reduce these numbers and maintain the verification procedures which are necessary for each party to have confidence that the other is complying with the treaty.

The two leaders also pledged their commitment to a verifiable treaty to end the production of fissile materials – the ingredients of a nuclear bomb. Such a treaty is critical for preventing governments and terrorist groups from developing nuclear weapons.

In addition, they support the rapid entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The CTBT would prohibit nuclear tests, hindering countries from enhancing existing arsenals or developing warheads in the first place.

The CTBT was signed by President Clinton in 1996. The U.S. Senate refused to ratify it in 1999. At that time, two main objections existed. First, there was limited capacity to detect cheating. Second, some lawmakers wondered if the U.S. could have confidence in the reliability of the arsenal without periodic tests. Neither objection is valid today. Because of advances in monitoring technology, we have a high degree of certainty that tests anywhere in the world would be detected. In fact, the CTBT International Monitoring System detected the low-yield test by North Korea in 2006.

The reliability question should not stand in the way of ratification either. In 2002 the National Academy of Sciences concluded that the improved Stockpile Stewardship Program is capable of maintaining the safety and reliability of the arsenal without nuclear testing. In 2006 the National Nuclear Security Administration released results from studies completed by the nuclear laboratories. They determined that warheads’ nuclear cores remain sound for at least 85 years.

The CTBT has been signed by 177 countries and ratified by 138, including Russia. Many analysts believe that if the U.S. ratifies it, other hold-out countries will follow the lead. President Obama has committed to “immediately and aggressively pursue ratification,” and tasked Vice President Joe Biden with shepherding the treaty through the Senate.

Despite these positive steps, many challenges exist. North Korea recently kicked out the international inspectors monitoring its nuclear activities. Iran continues to enrich uranium, moving closer to producing weapons grade material. The Obama administration will join with European nations, Russia and China in negotiations with Iran, but an agreement will be hard to reach.  Finally, some analysts fear the government in Pakistan could collapse due to internal unrest. This would raise serious concerns about the command and control of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and could threaten stability in the region and beyond.

Getting to zero nuclear weapons will not be easy, but it is possible. People of peace worked hard during the Bush years to defeat development of new nuclear weapons, including mini-nukes and the bunker buster. Now, that energy and activism is needed to convince the congress to support presidential initiatives to reduce the nuclear danger.

Faith in action:

Contact your senators and urge them to support U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Please visit the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s website for more information.
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