Contrary Directions for Nukes: Weapons Projects Undermine Obama's Disarmament Vision, Critics Say

By McElwee, Joshua J. | National Catholic Reporter, January 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

Contrary Directions for Nukes: Weapons Projects Undermine Obama's Disarmament Vision, Critics Say


McElwee, Joshua J., National Catholic Reporter


The Obama administration is moving ahead with the development of new nuclear weapons components at three key weapons facilities at the same time it is conducting a sweeping review of U.S. nuclear weapons policies that could lead to further slashing the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

For the moment, U.S. nuclear weapons policies appear to be running in contrary directions, and while some critics of U.S. nuclear policy are cautiously optimistic, they are also worried President Obama's nuclear disarmament vision is not yet being supported by concrete policy actions.

New nuclear weapons projects are planned at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee and the Kansas City Plant in Missouri. In fact, the pace of nuclear component development at these sites appears to be increasing.

For example, a major new nuclear component plant is well into the planning stage in Kansas City and it is to replace the aging current plant.

Each city's weapons facility creates parts for U.S. nuclear weapons.

Nickolas Roth, director of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, said the work at these plants involves "substantial new nuclear weapons projects." Founded in 1987 under the name Military Production Network, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability is a national network of organizations that represent the concerns of communities dealing with nuclear weapons sites and radioactive waste dumps.

Roth said the alliance supports the vision of a nuclear-weapons-free world set forth by Obama, adding, "There needs to be meat on the bones for that type of statement."

Shrouded in secrecy, precise costs for the maintenance of the U.S. nuclear weapons plants are not readily available. However, the National Nuclear Security Administration, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, has said the new facility being proposed for Kansas City will carry an estimated price tag of $673 million for construction and $1.2 billion over the next 20 years.

The replacement Kansas City facility will manufacture electrical and mechanical non-nuclear parts. The facility at Oak Ridge, meanwhile, plans to reinvest in its capability to produce uranium components for nuclear weapons and the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Project at Los Alamos plans to increase U.S. capability to produce plutonium pits, the core of a nuclear weapon, from 20 pits to 125 pits annually, according to Roth. The U.S. Senate has yet to approve this increase.

It's this proposed expansion that has critics of U.S. nuclear policy worried even as Obama talks of reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal.

Meanwhile, Obama has already reached a tentative agreement with Russia to reduce the number of strategic nuclear warheads on both sides from about 2,200 to between 1,500 and 1,675 in the next several years, while also slashing number of missiles designed to carry them to between 500 and 1,000.

Nuclear arms critics want substantially larger cuts, backed by policy changes.

The administration is in the final stages of a major nuclear weapons policy review. Officially called the Nuclear Posture Review, it is expected to be completed as early as March, involving a thorough look at the size, structure and mission of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Nearly two decades after the Cold War ended, the review is the third post-Cold War assessment of the roles and missions for U.S. nuclear forces; The administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush completed their nuclear posture reviews in 1994 and 2001, respectively.

In an address last April in Prague, Czech Republic, Obama set forth three guiding goals for his nuclear weapons national security strategy:

* Negotiation of a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with the Russians. The current treaty expired Dec. 5, but is still in force pending the adoption of a new agreement.

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