Thursday, April 06, 2006

Modernizing the Nuclear Stockpile

The Bush Administration wants to modernize and upgrade the US nuclear weapons capability. That's long overdue. Many of these weapons systems are decades old, and the reliability of many of these weapons become questionable as the components decay through natural processes. The Administration wants to consolidate plutonium storage and production at a single facility, begin building new weapons, and refurbishing existing weapons.

Critics take two tacts - one that the consolidation isn't quick enough and that refurbishing or building new weapons would only encourage other countries to engage in nuclear weapons research.
The plan was outlined to Congress on Wednesday by Thomas D'Agostino, head of nuclear weapons programs at the National Nuclear Security Administration, a part of the Energy Department. Though the weapons proposal would restore the capacity to make new bombs, D'Agostino said it was part of a larger effort to accelerate the dismantling of aging bombs left from the Cold War.

D'Agostino acknowledged in an interview that the administration was walking a fine line by modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons program while assuring other nations that it was not seeking a new arms race. The credibility of the contention rests on the U.S. intent to sharply reduce its inventory of weapons.

The administration is also quickly moving ahead with a new nuclear bomb program known as the "reliable replacement warhead," which began last year. Originally described as an effort to update existing weapons and make them more reliable, it has been broadened and now includes the potential for new bomb designs. Weapons labs currently are engaged in a design competition.

The U.S. built its last nuclear weapon in 1989 and last tested a weapon underground in 1992. Since the Cold War, the nation has had massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons to deter potential attacks. By contrast, it would increasingly rely on the capability to build future bombs for deterrence, D'Agostino said.

The blueprint calls for a modern complex to design a new nuclear bomb and have it ready in less than four years, allowing the nation to respond to changing military requirements. Similar proposals in the past, such as for a nuclear bomb to attack underground bunkers, provoked concern that they undermined U.S. policy to stop nuclear proliferation.
Critics also contend that the plutonium pits that form the heart of the US weapons do not degrade as those seeking to restart production contend.

Some of these plans were shelved, even as the number of nations with nuclear weapons capabilities emerged. Other countries are already engaging in nuclear weapons research all while the US efforts at maintaining the nuclear stockpiles remained stagnant. Iran. Saudi Arabia. Pakistan. India. North Korea. These countries are all working on nuclear weapons programs. Pakistan, India, and North Korea all went nuclear within the past decade while nonproliferation treaties did nothing to stop the spread of nuclear weapons technologies.

The US must take its own security first and foremost, especially when dealing with threats from rogue states like Iran and North Korea - both of whom are seeking not only nuclear weapons, but long range delivery systems.

Some of those countries will not be deterred from seeking nuclear weapons no matter what - Iran. The US building weapons that could take out the Iranian threat is not only a responsible thing to do, but it shows that the US will not tolerate long term threats from countries that seek to harm US interests around the world.

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