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The Peril of America’s Nuclear Policies

In a recent interview, President Bush warned that if Iran did not cease its efforts to construct a nuclear weapon, the United States would consider using armed force to thwart them. While the international community generally shares the Bush administration’s view that Iran’s recent efforts are unwelcome, it does not look intent on arresting them. Indeed, it appears to have arrived at a consensus that America possesses neither the political, nor, more importantly, the moral legitimacy to reproach Iran for establishing a nuclear program.

President Bush has properly argued that the most critical threat facing this country’s security “lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology,” and that strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, however, the policies of his administration have undercut the broad framework of treaties and protocols which collectively constitute this regime.

Since he took office in January 2001, the United States has withdrawn from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and declined to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Neither of these protocols elicits mention in 2002’s National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, which asserts that the United States should only “ensure [the international community’s] compliance with relevant international agreements.” The Bush administration is misguided if it believes that agreements such as those mentioned above are antiquated or irrelevant. Whatever deficiencies they may suffer, they anchor the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Abandoning such agreements implicitly sanctions others, be they allies or nemeses, to renege on their commitments to uphold it, thereby compounding the very threats that we seek to avert.

At present, the United States maintains a stockpile of 10,300 nuclear weapons, second only to Russia, which maintains 16,000. (It should be noted that, in between 2002 and 2005, Russia has dismantled and destroyed approximately 4,000 of its weapons; the United States, by contrast, has eliminated 400.) Furthermore, it currently spends 12 times more on efforts to construct nuclear weapons than it does on efforts to prevent their spread. While the scale of the United States’ nuclear program is troubling, of greater concern are its current initiatives.

The Bush administration is allocating $485 million to the Department of Energy to research what is known as a “robust nuclear Earth penetrator” (RNEP) — commonly known as a “bunker buster.” Such a weapon, if properly deployed, would burrow itself several meters underground, detonating only upon making contact with the weapons storage facility or facilities in consideration. However, laboratory studies reveal that, in addition to producing immense radioactive fallout, deploying bunker busters would entail calamitous ramifications for civilians. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued the following assessment:

The high yield RNEP will produce tremendous fallout that will drift for more than a thousand miles downwind … A simulation of RNEP used against the Esfahan nuclear facility in Iran, using the software developed for the Pentagon, showed that three million people would be killed by radiation within two weeks of the explosion, and 35 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India would be exposed to increased levels of cancer-causing radiation.

To cite another, less-publicized example, the United States also seeks to construct a “modern pit facility,” — at a cost of $2 to $4 billion — which would annually yield between 125 and 450 plutonium pits. (According to the Carolina Peace Resource Center, a plutonium pit “is a steel encased hollow ball of plutonium surrounded by explosives that acts as a trigger for a nuclear detonation.”) It should be noted that, accounting for all storage facilities across the country, there are already a minimum of 5,000 such pits in existence.

While I could enumerate other such examples here, doing so is unnecessary. (The Natural Resources Defense Council’s April 2004 report, Weaponeers of Waste, available at, documents such examples.) What is reasonable, however, is to ask if these efforts to construct a formidable nuclear apparatus are disparate or, rather, part of a more coordinated policy. At the least, they are firmly grounded in the grand strategies that influenced the United States’ foreign policies after World War II. In particular, they implement the recommendation of National Security Memorandum 7 (March 30, 1948), which argued that the United States must maintain “overwhelming nuclear supremacy.” It is difficult to conceive of a geopolitical environment in which the pursuit of this objective would afford the United States greater security.

The May 2005 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference affirmed this point, with the 188 participants failing to achieve much, if any, substantive progress. Doctor Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, rendered a more pointed judgment, stating that the proceedings accomplished “absolutely nothing.” The harshest criticism was directed toward the Western powers, and, in particular, the United States, for concurrently advancing its nuclear weapons program and censuring others for doing the same. Even traditional allies expressed displeasure with our posture. Canada’s chief representative, Paul Meyer, remarked that “If governments simply ignore or discard commitments whenever they prove inconvenient, we will never be able to build an edifice of international cooperation and confidence in the security realm.”

To single out the United States for criticism is unfair, and ignorant of the ways in which other states have undermined the nuclear nonproliferation regime. To wholly absolve it of fault, however, would appear to be unwise, in light of its current pursuits. Indeed, if we desire that emerging nuclear states discontinue their activities, we would be prudent to examine our own.