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November-December 2011

Vol. 36, No. 6


Nuclear weapons: 25 years since Reykjavik

The following article was written by Tim O'Connell, a former Maryknoll lay missioner.

October 11, 2011 marked 25 years since the Reykjavik summit, when President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev nearly agreed to eliminate their countries' nuclear arsenals. Twenty five years after the summit, two events used the anniversary to urge the U.S. Congress and global citizens to face the economic, political, and military realities associated with nuclear weapons today.

Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) and 65 co-signers from the House sent a letter to the "supercommittee" tasked with cutting federal deficits. The letter calls for $200 billion in cuts from the nuclear weapons budget over the next 10 years before cuts are made in programs essential for the well being of "seniors, middle-class families, and the most vulnerable." In an October 11 press conference, Markey stated, "America needs another nuclear weapon like Lady Gaga needs another outfit."

After President Obama's inauguration, hopes were high that he would take important steps towards nuclear disarmament. During a 2009 visit to Prague he promised "to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons." Since then he and Russian President Medvedev signed a follow-on agreement to Start II to reduce the numbers of nuclear weapons and reinstate on-site inspections to verify reductions. He also convened a summit on securing nuclear materials, the building block of these weapons. These were good and necessary moves but nuclear spending continues to rise.

Obama's latest budget request called for increases that would make the nuclear weapons budget 20 percent higher than it was under President Bush. Part of that increase was the price for Senate Republicans' approval of the new treaty with Russia. However, long term-planning also indicates a continued commitment to nuclear weapons.

In a recent essay, Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association outlined U.S. government proposals that include replacing 12 of 14 Trident submarines, which carry a total of approximately 1,100 nuclear warheads, upgrading over 400 land-based missiles carrying nukes, and building between 80 and 100 long range nuclear bombers. The price tag for these nuclear enhancements would top $400 billion. That's quite a shopping list for a country with national debt approaching $15 trillion, nine percent unemployment, and census data showing 42 million citizens living in poverty.

The United States is not alone. Russia will spend $10 billion in 2011 to replace old nuclear weapons systems that are nearing the end of their effective life. In a recent piece for Time, Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute, calculated that the nine countries currently possessing nuclear weapons will spend $100 billion a year and $1 trillion over the next decade on nuclear weapons programs. This total does not even include research and development occurring in other countries with nuclear ambitions.

Blair is also a co-founder of Global Zero, an international movement working towards nuclear disarmament that convened the other October 11 event. Their summit, held at the Ronald Reagan presidential library, brought together approximately 100 current and former government and military officials, analysts, activists, and others to call on leaders of the nine nuclear weapons states to initiate the first ever multilateral negotiations towards elimination of nuclear weapons.

People from across the political spectrum joined the summit in the belief that nuclear weapons are too costly, too dangerous and not militarily useful. They frame the nuclear question as a choice between nuclear disarmament and an ever increasing number of state and non-state actors with nuclear capability. They argue that the likelihood of a deliberate detonation or accidental launch increases as nuclear weapons proliferate.

Today thousands of nuclear weapons across the globe remain on hair-trigger alert, capable of killing hundreds of millions of people. Meanwhile terrorist organizations are working hard to procure the technology and materials required to build their own nuclear devices. To avoid a nuclear nightmare, we must eliminate nuclear weapons. Global Zero has established a step-by-step four-phased verifiable process that would accomplish this goal over the next 20 years.

Pressure is building from political and military leaders and civic and religious groups. Grassroots support is essential for the movement to zero to be successful. To learn more about Global Zero's plan and become part of the solution visit

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