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Update on nuclear weapons policy
NewsNotes, March-April 2010
Vol. 35 No. 2

This spring holds opportunities for world leaders, especially President Obama, to take important steps toward nuclear disarmament. The following article was written by Tim O’Connell, a former Maryknoll lay missioner.

At the Global Zero summit in Paris in February, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien of Baltimore said, “The path to zero [nuclear weapons] will be long and treacherous. But humanity must walk this path with both care and courage in order to build a future free of the nuclear threat.”

By March 1, the Obama administration must complete a congressionally mandated Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which will detail the administration’s nuclear strategy, doctrine, and policies. Disarmament supporters hope the NPR departs from Cold War thinking and embraces Obama’s pledge to work for a world free of nuclear weapons. But many are concerned, especially in light of the president’s budget for 2011. If approved by Congress, it would significantly increase funding for nuclear weapons.

Some observers believe such increases for “stockpile stewardship” are essential to securing the 67 votes Obama needs in the Senate to ratify a follow-on agreement to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Others believe it demonstrates that nuclear weapons will remain an indispensible component of U.S. national security strategy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Russia have agreed in principle to a new agreement to replace START, which expired in December. The timeline has slipped but the commitment remains. A new agreement could lower warhead limits from 2,200 under START and the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty to 1,600. Concluding an agreement ahead of the Review Conference (REVCON) for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in May would be welcomed.

The NPT prohibits non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS) from developing nuclear weapons and commits the declared nuclear weapons states (NWS) to eliminate their nuclear arsenals and share civilian nuclear technology with the NNWS. Every five years parties to the NPT review progress and discuss ways to strengthen the treaty.
Discussions will include progress or lack thereof towards disarmament by the NWS; what to do about countries outside the Treaty such as Israel, India, and Pakistan; the Additional Protocol and strengthening the International Atomic Energy Agency’s monitoring and verification powers; non-compliance and withdrawal from the Treaty; and Iran’s nuclear program.

The 2005 REVCON had trouble even agreeing to an agenda and produced nothing of note. Prospects are better this year following productive preparatory meetings last spring. Whether this will lead to substantive agreements in May is unclear.

Over a year ago the president pledged to “immediately and aggressively” pursue the Senate’s ratification of the CTBT, which would prohibit nuclear tests, hindering countries from improving existing arsenals or developing warheads in the first place.

The Senate refused to ratify the CTBT in 1999, citing two main objections. First, there was limited capacity to detect cheating. Second, lawmakers worried about the reliability of the U.S. arsenal without periodic tests. Neither objection is valid today. Advances in monitoring technology have enhanced detection capabilities so that a militarily significant test anywhere in the world would be detected.

The reliability question has been answered as well. 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, independent studies determined that warheads’ nuclear cores should remain sound for several decades.

Convincing 67 senators to vote for the CTBT will be challenging but not impossible. In a speech on February 18, Vice President Biden reiterated the administration’s commitment to pursuing ratification, prompting some observers to believe the administration will act soon. 

Eliminating nuclear weapons isn’t an idealistic dream; it is a pragmatic imperative. The coming months will show if words and vision will be translated into action and results along the path to zero.

Faith in action:
All are invited to join the May 2 rally and march for nuclear disarmament, to be held in New York City.

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