Thursday, June 17, 2010

New START vs. FY2011 Budget

In his Prague speech, President Obama proclaimed in order for the world to be free of nuclear weapons, the U.S. must spearhead a reduction of its nuclear arsenal. He won the hearts of many in the non-proliferation field when he stated that the U.S. would begin reducing its stockpile under his administration. How disheartening to us all, then, when we learned that his FY2011 budget reflected exactly the opposite. Far from committing funds for disarmament, he actually slashed the dismantlement program by 40%. By caving to conservative demands of modernization, Obama not only breaks his Prague promise, but acts against the spirit of New START.

New START is a follow-on to an agreement originally made between the U.S. and USSR to dismantle the relics of the Cold War, in order to build relations between the two adversaries, as well as reduce the risk of a nuclear accident. How strange then, that as the U.S. agrees to dismantle several hundred weapons with one hand, it funds the construction of weapons fuel facilities and Life Extension Programs (LEP) for aging arsenals with the other.
Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee earlier today about New START ratification. While he spoke favorably for ratification, he did so by assuring committee members of modernization efforts rather than the actual merits of the treaty.

Some Senators have claimed that a reduction in the U.S.’s strategic nuclear arsenal will decrease national security, and thus, their vote is contingent upon promises of arsenal “modernization” from the Obama administration. Modernization, however, seems to be newspeak for weapons creation and production.

It is important to U.S.-Russian relations, which has enjoyed a recent upswing due to the new administration’s commitment to a “reset,” that New START is ratified. Its ratification illustrates to not only Russia, but to the rest of the world, that the U.S. is committed to nuclear disarmament. It is discouraging then, to realize that Secretary Chu, in his testimony, actually touted the fact that the weapons activities budget increased by 10%, while failing to mention that the dismantlement budget decreased from $9.6 million to $5.8 million.

Chu testified that New START would not limit the LEPs for such programs as the W76 submarine-based warhead, slated for completion in 2017, or for the “follow-on activities for the B-61 bomb to ensure first production in 2017.” It is worth noting that the B-61 is deployed in European countries, some of which do not even want them there. Chu also hyped budget funding for infrastructure, which includes a mixed oxide (MOX) fuel fabrication plant in South Carolina. MOX plants are used to convert weapons grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants. They have been built and used in Europe and have been largely unsuccessful do to inefficiency and costliness.

Make no mistake—I want to see New START passed. I have been following it since before its inception, and I feel somewhat personally invested. What I don’t want to see, however, is Obama breaking his Prague pledge in response to the fear-mongering of those Senators pushing for modernization. Instead of slashing dismantlement funds and increasing funding for LEPs, the Obama administration should work towards retiring and dismantling existing aging arsenals—even if they don’t fall under the purview of New START. I believe President Obama can make a strong case for New START without tacking on nuclear modernization as an incentive. The treaty strengthens national security in several ways. For one it bolsters relations between Russia and the U.S., a key ally in Middle East affairs. Nuclear terrorism is also a major concern for national security; terrorists are less likely to obtain a device from either arsenal once several hundred weapons are dismantled under the treaty. Arsenal reductions also decrease the likelihood of a nuclear accident, something which has plagued mankind since the inception of the atom bomb. New START does not decrease national security, and President Obama should step up to his vow of disarmament.

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