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Develop Tools To Verify Nuclear Totals

Spend $75M to $100M Annually Over Next Decade

Dec. 6, 2010 - 03:45AM   |  
By JAMES E. DOYLE   |   Comments
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Over the next 10 years, the United States plans to spend more than $184 billion to maintain and modernize its nuclear weapon infrastructure to ensure that America can provide nuclear security for decades.

This challenge is more complex than during the Cold War. Nuclear security in the 21st century includes more than maintaining a strong nuclear deterrent and modernizing key facilities at the national laboratories. It includes arms control, nonproliferation and counterproliferation requirements as well.

Unfortunately, America lacks some essential tools for providing nuclear security as it continues to reduce surplus Cold War weapons and build a smaller, safer and more reliable nuclear arsenal. We do not have the technical means to confirm how many total nuclear warheads or how much weapons-grade nuclear materials other nations possess, or assure ourselves that a nation claiming to cease or limit production of nuclear warheads or fissile materials has done so.

Correspondingly, we have no way to prove to the international community that we have sharply reduced our nuclear arsenal in recent years. Finally, we have no way to verify that a certain number of nuclear warheads have been dismantled, placed in permanent storage or eliminated.

Monitoring and verification capabilities are becoming more critical to maintaining stable deterrent relationships with Russia and China as their nuclear forces evolve. These capabilities are essential for transparently demonstrating that our nuclear forces are appropriately sized and defensive in nature, and that we are meeting our nonproliferation obligations - conditions that help reduce the motivation of other states to seek nuclear arms.

It is hardly necessary to point out that they are equally vital to confirming that Russia, and in time, China and other nuclear weapon states, are adhering to arms control agreements. Most important, we must have these capabilities if we are to move cooperatively with Russia to much smaller nuclear arsenals and stocks of fissile materials to reduce the chances that terrorists could acquire the means to conduct a nuclear attack.

The need for these capabilities is clearly stated in the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), which provides key guidance for our nuclear infrastructure investments and overall national security strategy. Specifically, the NPR asserted that before considering sharply lower numbers of nuclear weapons, verification methods and technologies capable of detecting violations of disarmament obligations would need to be created and proved.

For example, while we have the means to adequately verify existing nuclear arms treaties and the new START Treaty now before the Senate, we do not have proven methods for verifying reductions in non-deployed and nonstrategic nuclear warheads, priorities identified by the NPR for the next round of U.S.-Russian arms control.

To this end, the NPR called for a comprehensive national research and development program to support continued progress on verification technologies and the development of transparency measures.

Such a national program should be initiated without delay. While neither the details nor the agencies responsible for its implementation have been announced, it is not difficult to sketch the contours of the needed program.

First, the program should be funded as a core aspect of the nation's nuclear infrastructure modernization plan and thus implemented jointly by the National Nuclear Security Administration and the Department of Defense. Because of the centrality of its objectives to international stability, the national program for nuclear verification and transparency should not be thought of as a responsibility of the U.S.-Russian arms control community alone.

Indeed, just as the Cooperative Threat Reduction program emerged as a multiagency effort providing "defense by other means" in the form of thousands of dismantled nuclear weapons and warheads, a national R&D program can focus on cooperative development of verification and transparency technologies for nuclear arms and fissile material reductions with our international partners and allies.

Support for such a program already exists within the U.S. interagency community, elements of which have detailed plans for an initial set of research objectives and technical projects. The National Academy of Sciences, the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science are among other U.S. and international non-governmental organizations that have expressed support.

To develop new verification technologies over the next decade, a program with annual funding on the order of $75 million to $100 million should be initiated now. This amounts to far less than 1 percent of the planned $184 billion to be spent on nuclear weapon infrastructure in the next decade.

Current U.S. capabilities to ensure that nuclear arsenals and stocks of materials have been reduced, that disarmament and nonproliferation obligations are being met, and that remaining arsenals are as small and secure as possible are inadequate. It is time for the comprehensive national program called for in the NPR to be rolled out and provided with the needed resources in the broader nuclear infrastructure modernization plan.


James E. Doyle is a nuclear security specialist in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Division at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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