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Nuclear Weapon Security

With the end of the Cold War, the threat of nuclear weapons appeared to diminish. However, today we live in a world in which nuclear weapon states are upgrading their arsenals; new nuclear states are being created; and terrorists are trying to get hold of nuclear weapons or the material to make a nuclear bomb. While the risk of deliberate global nuclear war has receded, the accidental launch of thousands of nuclear weapons remains a possibility.


The U.S. should be taking a leadership role in the elimination of nuclear weapons. PSR believes there is a critical need for new policies that would have the U.S.:

  • Lead the world in reducing the nuclear threat by ending plans for new nuclear weapons and working for the global elimination of nuclear weapons.
  • Prevent nuclear terrorism by dramatically increasing efforts to lock down unsecured nuclear materials and nuclear weapons worldwide

Obama Administration Nuclear Strategy


On April 5th 2009, President Obama outlined his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons in a major speech in Prague. The administration has framed the issue of nuclear disarmament as essential to the United State's national security and part of an incremental multi-lateral process that may not happen in our lifetime.


The administration has committed to the ratification of a Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). START would continue a process of mutal nuclear weapon reductions in the United States' and Russian nuclear arsenals. The CTBT would create a global ban on the testing of nuclear weapons through detonation which has been the practice of the US Government for almost two decades. In addition, the administration has set the goal of securing all loose fissile material in four years in an attempt to reduce the risk of nuclear terrorism.


Bush Administration Nuclear Strategy


In 2002, the Bush administration put in place a National Security Strategy, committing the United States to preventing the rise of a global competitor (formerly the Soviet Union) to challenge the American role as the sole superpower. It states, “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States.”[1] Put more simply, the United States should be so powerful, that no other country would try to match American military might.


As well as attempting to dissuade any potential competitor, such as Russia or China, from trying to match U.S. military power, the strategy also confirmed the U.S. willingness to engage in the use of nuclear weapons if persuasion and threats fail. The strategy commited the U.S. to having the capability to “decisively defeat any adversary if deterrence fails.” 


To achieve this aim the United States committed to keeping as many as 2,200 nuclear weapons in the active arsenal, many of these on hair trigger alert, with thousands more in reserve. The U.S. also committed, as stated in the Nuclear Posture Review, to replacing its nuclear warheads and developing new nuclear weapons that would preserve the U.S. nuclear capability through 2070 one hundred years after the U.S.-inspired nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty came into force, under which America and other nuclear weapons states committed to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons.


Instead of pursuing disarmament the U.S. sought to assure nuclear weapons dominance into the foreseeable future and to prevent the rise of new nuclear powers (such as Iran) that could challenge the United States, even at the regional level.[2] The goal was to ensure that resources, such as oil, or other “vital interests” would be readily available to the U.S. with no interference.[3]


The U.S. embrace of nuclear weapons as central to security had its own security costs. The message that the world’s remaining military superpower is not interested in reducing the role of nuclear weapons is not lost on other nations. Russia also rebuilt its nuclear arsenal. China built new nuclear missiles and planned to create a submarine missile force for the first time. North Korea continued to develop nuclear weapons, while America’s allies, the UK and France, are revamping their own nuclear arsenals. Most importantly, Iran has continued its dual-use nuclear program with increasingly confrontational statements against cooperating with international negotiators.


Another role the U.S. had fashioned for nuclear weapons is one of “counterproliferation.” This meant the U.S. was prepared to use nuclear weapons to disarm other nations.   This policy is counterproductive and viewed as hypocritical because it declared that the U.S. has the right to threaten and even use nuclear weapons against other nations who may be seeking their own nuclear arsenal.  If we say nuclear weapons are central to our security how are we justified in telling other nations not to pursue their own “security” in the same way?


This policy was not merely rhetoric. In 1994, the Clinton administration prepared plans to destroy North Korean bases with nuclear weapons. During the 2003 invasion of Iraq the Bush administration prepared plans for the use of nuclear weapons against Saddam Hussein should his armed forces have used weapons of mass destruction. In 2005/6 the Pentagon prepared plans for nuclear strikes against nuclear facilities in Iran. Seymour Hersh revealed in the New Yorker that these plans were well advanced, and that U.S. planes had carried out training runs for the use of nuclear weapons at the edge of Iranian airspace.


New Nuclear Weapons The Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW)


Under the Bush administration, international treaties and the use of diplomacy to stop the spread of nuclear weapons had been replaced by the policy of counterproliferation—threatening other nations with nuclear or conventional attack if they try to develop their own nuclear weapons.


Having failed to achieve Congressional support for a massive new bunker busting nuclear weapons, deemed too dangerous even by Republicans in Congress, the administration pursued its desire for mini-nukes, or weapons it believes could be actually used against potential enemies such as Iran.


The administration turned its energy to the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). This program is designed to create a range of new nuclear weapons.  Eventually, RRWs would replace all current nuclear weapons in the US arsenal.  Although the total size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal of the future may be somewhat reduced, new nuclear weapons will be matched with new nuclear bombers and missiles that would ensure nuclear weapons will continue to be central to U.S. security plans into the next century. Although the effort was ultimately defeated, concerns remain that the RRW program could be


A New Direction


The current administration has dramatically reversed the Bush administration's rejection of nuclear disarmament as an essential part of America's defense strategy. START and the CTBT will be critical treaties to restoring global momentum towards the abolition of nuclear weapons and isolation for countries seeking to develop new nuclear weapon programs. The upcoming Nuclear Posture Review offers an opportunitiy for the government to reintroduce the critical role of nuclear disarmament in reducing risk to create a more manageable and stable world. In other areas, such as increased spending on capacity to build weapons, the Obama administration has proposed budgets that appear antithetical to nuclear disarmament.  


Rather than maintaining and rebuilding its own nuclear arsenal, the U.S. should be using its position as a world leader to advance an agenda for global nuclear disarmament, including:


  • Ending plans for new nuclear weapons;
  • Locking down vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons, worldwide, as quickly as possible;
  • Securing verifiable, irreversible reductions in nuclear arsenals as a prelude to total elimination of nuclear weapons;
  • Supporting the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty for a permanent end to nuclear weapons testing;
  • Taking all nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert;


As Dr Hans Blix, former Director of the IAEA and leader of the WMD Commission said , “... although existing international treaties have shown weaknesses, a policy based on unilateralism and military actions has failed and has been costly in terms of lives and resources. Efforts to jointly create global security must now be intensified. All states especially those with nuclear weapons have a responsibility and must contribute to the process.”[4]


Only in a nuclear weapons free world, where nuclear materials are secured and eventually eliminated, will we be safe from nuclear attack by another nation or by terrorists. As the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki showed, the human consequences of using nuclear weapons are devastating. We must eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all.



[1] National Security Strategy, 2002, pg.34

[2] National Security Strategy, 2006, Section V.

[3] National Military Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, 13 February 2006, pg.8.

[4] Dr. Hans Blix, WMD Commission Press Release, 1 June 2006, available at


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