Obama’s Nuclear Weapons Plan

Harvesting Low Hanging (But Not Game Changing) Fruit

Early this April, President Obama unveiled his vision for strengthening the world’s nuclear non-proliferation regime: renewed arms reduction talks with Russia and the creation of an international fuel bank in Kazakhstan to provide fuel services to non-weapons states. Both are excellent ideas which are long overdue, but neither will resolve the major proliferation threats facing us today.

When it comes to arms reduction, Obama is likely to have better luck than George W. Bush. Despite Bush’s insistence that Putin was “straightforward and trustworthy,” Russia and the U.S. have had a frigid relationship during the two leaders’ tenure, and the best that Bush could achieve was a reduction of deployed weapons to 2,200 per side. With Obama’s renunciation of ballistic missile defenses, he’ll enjoy warmer relations with Russia, but he’ll still have to overcome a persistent unwillingness on the Russian side to part with their nuclear arsenal.

Unlike the U.S., whose nuclear arms are accompanied by mountains of conventional military might, Russia depends much more heavily on nuclear weapons to achieve military parity with nearby China or Europe. While Russia recognizes it is in no financial position to maintain the same nuclear operational readiness that it did during the Cold War, there is also the sense among the Russian people that their nuclear weapons were bought with the sweat and sacrifice of their ancestors, that they’re a hard-earned inheritance not meant to be squandered for the benefit of passing American fancy. Hence the nature of Bush’s treaty, which brought new limits to “operationally deployed” weapons but left the Russians free to keep many more nukes a wrench’s turn from readiness.

What is needed is not just another hollow reduction of “deployed” weapons, but the irreversible destruction of delivery vehicles (ICBMs, bombers, etc) and an expansion of the Megatons to Megawatts program. Set to expire in 2013, the Megatons to Megawatts program has taken more than 14,000 warhead-equivalents of weapons material and blended it down into fuel for use in commercial nuclear reactors.

If more arms cuts like this could be achieved, we could reduce the risk of an accidental launch, lower the operational costs of maintaining our nuclear arsenals, and provide a healthy peace dividend to our electric utilities while still maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent. However, though these plans provide a significant benefit to arms control, it’s unlikely to have the larger effect of inducing Iran, North Korea, or existing weapons states to reduce or abandon their own weapons programs. The Non-Proliferation Treaty might obligate weapons states to gradually disarm, but it’s not as if Kim Jong Il and the mullahs started building nuclear weapons as some sort of moral protest against the vast stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia.

Similarly, the creation of a fuel bank in Kazakhstan is unlikely to induce Iran and North Korea to give up uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. The idea behind a “seventh state solution” (so-called because six other states, the five weapons states plus Japan, have fuel service capabilities) is to remove any economic motivation for non-weapons states to develop their own enrichment or reprocessing facilities. How it works is this: a trusted, neutral broker like Kazakhstan is given a big mound of low-enriched uranium and some centrifuges to tweak the U-235 percentages to customer’s demands. They sell the uranium to non-weapons states at prices lower than those states could achieve on their own, and take back the fuel when it is discharged from the reactor.

Non-weapons states benefit because they get a guaranteed source of fuel for their reactors at lower prices. Weapons states benefit because in return for their small subsidy, they get to ensure that non-weapons states don’t develop the enrichment or reprocessing facilities necessary to make bomb material. And if a non-weapons state continues to go forward with its own enrichment or reprocessing facilities, then they can’t hide their actions behind the fig leaf of economic necessity and in theory face the wrath of the international community.

The reason that an international fuel bank won’t work is simple: Bush floated the idea (and funded it to the tune of $50 million) nearly two years ago and Iran scoffed at the idea. The fig leaf is gone; everyone already knows that Iran’s Natanz site exists to provide weapons material, not to supply Iran’s non-existent reactors. As soon as it became clear that the only states that would accept the west’s subsidy were the ones we weren’t worried about, the fuel bank got put on the policy back burner.

But even if a fuel bank isn’t a silver bullet against determined proliferator states, it’s still worth the price if it prevents a state like Brazil or Saudi Arabia from developing their own enrichment centers. And who knows, perhaps it will give Iran the diplomatic cover to change course — as long as the fuel bank’s services are limited to those states who have demonstrably given up enrichment and reprocessing activities, it can’t hurt.

In short, Obama’s latest policy moves on nuclear weapons are the right direction for the U.S., but we shouldn’t pretend that they are a solution to the most intractable problems we face. There is still much work to do to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons.