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Ridding the Earth of Nukes, One Treaty at a Time

President Obama takes significant steps toward global nuclear disarmament

Ronald Bailey
March 30, 2010

During the 2008 presidential campaign, candidate Barack Obama pledged to seek “the peace of a world without nuclear weapons.” President Obama has now made a small but significant step toward keeping this promise. Last week, Russian President Dimitry Medvedev and President Obama announced that they will sign a new nuclear arms control agreement in April. And even though Obama is pursuing a disastrous domestic policy agenda—health care reform comes to mind—in this case, he is doing exactly the right thing.

The new treaty reduces the number of each country’s nukes to 1,550 warheads, a cut nearly 30 percent from a 2,200-weapon limit set under the 2002 Moscow Treaty. The agreement also cuts by more than half the missiles and bombers that carry the weapons, limiting warhead delivery vehicles to 800 deployed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBMs) launchers, submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBMs) launchers, and heavy bombers.

This is good news, but the new treaty applies only to deployed weapons. The U.S. and Russia still maintain stockpiles that add up to some 20,000 nuclear bombs and which account for about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. While still massive, the U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads is down from a peak of about 33,000 in 1967, while Russia’s (the former Soviet Union's) peaked in 1982 at around 45,000 warheads.

These bristling nuclear arsenals may well have deterred all out war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the period stretching from the end of World War II until the communist regime’s collapse in 1991. But Obama is right when he declared in a speech in Prague last April, “The existence of thousands of nuclear weapons is the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War.” There is no current justification for keeping thousands of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons targeted at each other’s cities on hair-trigger alert, except the lame fact that the other guy is doing the same thing.

And maintaining our nuclear forces is costly. A report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace calculated a lowball estimate that America’s nuclear arsenal costs the country more than $52 billion per year. Back in the 1998, the Brookings Institution released a report that estimated that the U.S. had spent since 1940 nearly $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs, in constant 1996 dollars ($7.4 trillion in today’s dollars). With budget deficits running to trillions of dollars as far as the eye can see, surely cutting nuclear spending is a due exercise in fiscal responsibility.

The time may be ripe for taking further dramatic steps toward a world free of nuclear weapons. In April, the U.S. is convening a global nuclear security summit involving 40 nations that will focus on developing international measures to prevent nuclear smuggling and terrorism. In May, the review conference involving the 189 countries that have signed the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty will convene in New York with the goal of strengthening provisions curtailing the spread of nuclear weapons and advancing the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Adopted in 1970, the treaty celebrated its 40th anniversary on March 5.

Under the 1970 nonproliferation treaty, all signatories agreed not to develop nuclear weapons, and the five nations (U.S., France, U.K., China, and the Soviet Union) that had detonated nuclear weapons before 1967 agreed to pursue negotiations leading eventually to “a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” And the treaty seems to be working—so far only non-signatories Israel, Pakistan, and India have subsequently developed nuclear weapons (along with North Korea which withdrew from the treaty in 2003).

President Obama has also vowed to “aggressively pursue” ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in the U.S. Senate. Signatories to the CTBT agree “not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion or any other nuclear explosion.” The U.S. signed the CTBT in 1996, but the Senate rejected the treaty by an essentially party-line vote of 51 against to 45 in favor in October, 1999. The last Russian nuclear test was in 1990 and the last American nuclear test was in 1992. It is significant that no nation (except North Korea) has tested a nuclear weapon since 1998. Banning such tests would help prevent the restart of an arms race in which countries refine their nuclear attack capabilities.

But what about rogue states? After all, it appears that Syria was trying to develop nuclear weapons before its facilities were bombed by the Israelis in 2007 and that Iran may be well on its way toward doing so. Such rogue states, in part, seek nuclear weapons as a way to deter attacks from other countries. The chief fear is that such regimes could become so unstable that they would use nuclear weapons as a first regional strike, or worse, provide weapons to terrorists. However, the possibility that rogue regimes might acquire nuclear weapons is no justification for having Cold War levels of weapons aimed at Russian and American cities on hair-trigger alert.

Now that the Americans and Russians have achieved a new treaty, it is time to bring other nuclear-armed states into negotiations to dramatically reduce global stockpiles of nuclear weapons. One possible path toward the global elimination of nuclear weapons is outlined in the Model Nuclear Weapons Convention submitted to the preparatory committee of the upcoming Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons treaty review conference.

The model convention lays out a five phase process toward achieving a nuclear-weapons-free world. In the first year, the world’s nuclear weapons states would remove all targeting coordinates and navigational information from their nuclear weapons delivery vehicles, disable the delivery vehicles and bombs, and cease to make bomb-grade fissile materials. In the second year, all nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery vehicles would be removed from their deployment sites. By the fifth year, all nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles would be destroyed, except that both the U.S. and Russia may retain a stockpile of 1,000 warheads, and China, the U.K., and France may keep 100 warheads each. By the 10th year, all warheads would be destroyed except for 50 each for the U.S. and Russia, and 10 each for China, the U.K., and France. At the end of 15 years all nuclear weapons would be destroyed and no facilities capable of making highly enriched fissile materials will continue to operate.

Of course, insuring such dramatic weapons reductions entails the creation of a fairly intrusive system of verification. But there is no reason not to start down this path now and as mutual confidence builds, establishing an acceptable comprehensive verification system should become easier to negotiate.

Obama and Medvedev will sign the new nuclear arms reductions treaty at a meeting in Prague next week. The president promises to submit that treaty for ratification to the Senate later in April. This is no time for partisan grandstanding—previous nuclear arms control treaties with the Russians have been ratified by lopsided margins, with more than 90 senators in favor. Ratifying the new treaty with Russia and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty would be significant steps toward the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons. We should take them.

Ronald Bailey is Reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is available from Prometheus Books. This column first appeared at Reason.com.


Ronald Bailey is Science Correspondent


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