ADVERTISEMENT
Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

No new nukes: Obama's nuclear posture points to caution

|

ivy-mike-nuclear-bomb-mushroom-cloudThe U.S. will cut its nuclear weapons stockpile, use such weapons only as a deterrent, and pump more money into the infrastructure to create and sustain such weapons, according to the new nuclear weapons policy released today by the Obama administration.


"Preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism is now at the top of America's nuclear agenda," President Barack Obama said in a prepared statement, adding: "The United States will not develop new nuclear warheads or pursue new military missions or new capabilities for nuclear warheads."


That brings to a close speculation that the U.S. might pursue the so-called reliable replacement warhead—a new bomb to replace aging weapons—at least at this time. The new review does leave the door open for development of such weapons in future. Some critics have charged that aging nuclear warheads may be defective and fail to function as intended. But studies, by government scientists, outside experts at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and others, have predicted that maintenance programs for old weapons should guarantee their reliability for decades.


The new posture also leaves the door open to using nuclear weapons on states that do not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while disavowing their use on countries that do sign up even in the event of a biological, chemical or massive conventional attack. "Our national security and our allies and partners can be increasingly defended by America's unsurpassed conventional military capabilities," the President said in his statement.


Yet, at the same time, the U.S. signed an agreement in 2008 to permit India—a country that has ignored that treaty and exploded its first nucelar bomb in 1974—to begin recycling nuclear fuel, isolating plutonium for use either as part of nuclear reactor fuel or, potentially, in weapons. And the U.S. may sign a similar deal with South Korea.


Later this week, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning President will likely sign a new treaty with Russia to further reduce the two countries' nuclear arsenals to roughly 1,550 warheads apiece. And next week he will host an international summit on nuclear security. The goal there will be to convince nations to buy into a crackdown on the illicit nuclear technologies trade that has allowed Pakistan, North Korea and others to develop such weapons. The nations will also work to come to some form of agreement on how to better secure the fissile materials from enrichment plants that make nuclear reactor fuel.


Finally, the President has disavowed any return to testing in the U.S. "The United States will not conduct nuclear testing and will seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty," Obama said. Of course, the last time the CTBT came up for a vote, the U.S. Senate rejected it, largely on charges that it could not be verified. Scientists reject those claims—seismic monitoring can detect a nuclear explosion of just one kiloton—but that may not change the politics.


The power of electoral politics can be seen in the decision to increase funding for the nation's nuclear weapons complex. The Obama administration will continue the Bush administration policy of revitalizing the capacity to build nuclear weapons—while explicitly foreswearing doing so. After all, new nuclear weapons scientists, engineers and technicians for that now aging workforce are a reliable source of replacement jobs in California, New Mexico, Texas, and other states with nuclear weapons facilities.

Image: Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:

Comments

You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

Email this Article

X