Is it enough to argue that the US should reduce the size of its nuclear arsenal without addressing logistical questions about how this process should occur? An Independent Task Force Report sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and chaired by former secretary of defense William J. Perry and former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft points out, “Reducing and eliminating nuclear weapons means considerably more than transferring deployed nuclear warheads from military units to a secure storage facility. Eliminating the destructive potential of the weapon requires a systematic process to decommission and dismantle retired devices” (74). However, the process of decommissioning and dismantling retired nuclear weapons faces several obstacles.
The US simply lacks the capacity to dismantle retired warheads in a timely manner. A USA Today article published in May of 2009 notes, “the government faces a 15-year backlog of warheads already waiting to be dismantled and a need for billions of dollars in new facilities to store and dispose of the weapons' plutonium.” This article quotes Linton Brooks, who was the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration from 2002 to 2007, as suggesting that new weapons reductions simply add “to the backlog” and mean “the queue gets a lot longer.” But the current backlog already runs through 2024. Does this mean a size reduction aff doesn’t begin to be implemented until then? Or should we envision the aff’s size reductions being prioritized over those occurring now? Does the aff speed up the current rate of dismantlement? The answers to these questions could have important implications.
Wade Boese points out that all dismantlement work is currently carried out at the Pantex facility. However, as Boese also notes, this capacity is limited by the fact that the “United States has no large-scale capability to disassemble the (plutonium) pits” within the warheads, so they are simply stored at Pantex pending the construction of facilities that can. According to the Global Security Newswire, Pantex will begin to experience capacity problems for storing plutonium in 2014, and new facilities to convert the plutonium pits into fuel for nuclear reactors are 7-12 years off. This would seem to undercut the basis for speeding up the rate of dismantlement. Why should we move any more quickly in the face of inevitable storage limitations? Moreover, even if the US had a capacity to store greater numbers of these plutonium pits, it is questionable whether it would even be desirable to do so. The aforementioned CFR Independent Task Force Report argues that such components are “able to be reused,” and, worse, “As warheads are dismantled, highly enriched uranium and plutonium are separated and become more vulnerable to theft or diversion” (10, 38). Even if the aff were to claim to speed up the production of facilities capable of dismantling plutonium pits, it is questionable how much one can rush the production of high-tech facilities designed to dismantle nuclear materials. Linton Brooks is quoted in the Global Security Newswire as suggesting that this process “is expensive ... (and) is going to take a long time.”
Moreover, Pantex has several other obligations that increased rates of dismantlement might jeopardize. The CFR Independent Task Force Report notes that Pantex is also the facility that “disassembles and reassembles warheads for routine surveillance or life extensions,” creating “an inherent tension between dismantling the large number of weapons authorized for retirement and maintaining the current stockpile” (75). Indeed, it suggests that Pantex “is now essentially operating at maximum capacity,” and, as a result, “there is a trade-off” between increased rates of dismantlement and currently Life Extension Programs (75, 10). A CRS Report for Congress published in 2007 suggests that these Life Extension Programs have been important in certifying the safety of the US nuclear arsenal without testing. Could speeding up the rate of dismantlement eliminate these LEPs, and therefore undercut the perceived reliability of the remaining arsenal?
Taken together, there appear to be many possibilities for how we could envision reductions in the size of the nuclear arsenal being implemented, each with its own costs. They ultimately raise the question of whether those who wish to see reductions in the size of the nuclear arsenal should push for greater cuts in the number of warheads considered active, or if it might be more useful to push for a greater capacity to dismantle the warheads that we’ve already slated for dismantlement first.
Published in: Nuclear Weapons Topic (2009-10)