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NewsNotes, May-June 2010
Vol. 35 No. 3


Nuclear weapons: Recent actions meet expectations

The following update on the recent actions around nuclear weapons was written by returned lay missioner Tim O’Connell.

Nuclear Posture Review (NPR)

The NPR, released by the Obama administration on April 6, represents modest progress in U.S. nuclear weapons thinking.

For the first time, the NPR enshrines the goal of nuclear disarmament and elevates nonproliferation efforts, making them an integral part of overall U.S. nuclear policy.

The NPR also clarifies negative security assurances, that is, the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear weapons state that is in compliance with the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

The NPR states that nuclear weapons are for deterring and responding to “nuclear” attacks, marking a departure from existing policy. Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush left open the nuclear option as a response to chemical or biological attacks as well. In another shift from Clinton and Bush, Obama does not envision new missions, such as bunker busting, for nuclear weapons.

Overall, the NPR still focuses on countering Russia and China and maintains nuclear forces on “hair trigger” alert. It does not significantly reduce roles or numbers of nuclear weapons. The NPR does not mark a radical shift in nuclear posture or force structure, but does signal a change in attitude and should help Obama as he seeks ratification of the START agreement and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START)

A Follow-On Agreement to START was signed by Obama and Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on April 8 after a year of extensive negotiations. The agreement will limit each side to 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads, a 30 percent reduction from previous START levels. It would limit deployment of delivery vehicles to 700 for each country. The agreement will also enhance verification procedures including more efficient information sharing and on-site inspections.

The deal has some Republican supporters including former Secretaries of State George Shultz and Henry Kissinger as well as Admiral Brent Scowcroft, who was National Security Advisor under President George H. W. Bush. Still, support is not unanimous, as nuclear hawks believe the cuts go too deep without building replacement warheads for the weapons that will remain deployed.

The new START agreement is a step in the right direction. It has reinvigorated strategic arms control, paving the way for future cuts and improves the prospects for progress at the Review Conference for NPT. It’s expected that Obama will submit the treaty to the Senate for ratification in late May or early June. In the current political climate nothing passes easily, so it will be important for people to encourage their senators to support the new START Follow-On Agreement.

Nuclear Security Summit

On April 13, delegations from 47 countries, the United Nations, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency met in Washington to make plans to prevent nuclear terrorism and within four years “lock-down” all nuclear materials which are found in bombs plants, nuclear reactors and other civilian facilities in dozens of countries with varying degrees of security. Participants at the Summit agreed that safeguarding these materials is essential for international security and requires global cooperation. They issued a formal communiqué and work plan.

The Summit was important for raising the profile of nuclear nonproliferation efforts in general and galvanizing support for action. Several countries also used the summit to make important announcements. Chile, Mexico, Vietnam, Kazakhstan and Ukraine pledged to dispose of highly enriched uranium used in civilian reactors, reducing the amount of weapons grade material available. India announced plans to build an international center for training professionals in nuclear security and radiation safety. In addition, China’s President Hu Jintao made his first public remarks regarding the dangers of nuclear proliferation adding an important voice to the chorus calling for tighter controls on nuclear materials.

In April 2009, Obama declared that the world must eliminate nuclear weapons. The Summit, the release of the Nuclear Posture Review and a follow-on to START renews hope that progress is possible.

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