Friday, November 12, 2010
Fate of New Start Treaty?
Messieurs John Bolton and John Yoo, two former Bush administration stalwarts, reprised their fundamentalist approach to the formulation of US foreign and domestic policy, in a 11-10-10 Op Ed piece for the New York Times.
It is now clear, they said, that "Voters want government brought closer to the vision the framers outlined in the Constitution, and the first test could be the fate of the flawed New Start arms control treaty, which was signed by President Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev of Russia last spring but awaits ratification. The Senate should heed the will of the voters and either reject the treaty or amend it so that it doesn’t weaken our national defense."
They asserted further that: "New Start’s faults are legion. The low limits it would place on nuclear warheads ignore the enormous disparities between American and Russian global responsibilities and the importance of America’s 'nuclear umbrella' in maintaining international security."
They then opined: "To prevent New Start from gravely impairing America’s nuclear capacity, the Senate must .... demand changes to the treaty itself. .... Congress should pass a new law financing the testing and development of new warhead designs before approving New Start."
In support, they offered up a historical precedent: "All this is within the Senate’s powers. When it approved the Jay Treaty in the 1790s, which resolved outstanding disputes with Britain, the Senate consented only on condition that President George Washington delete a specific provision on trade. Washington and Britain agreed to the amendment, and the treaty entered into force."
Hence, we see here what may be the opening sally, from a cabal of nuclear stone-agers, in the about to be renewed struggle to ratify the New Start Treaty (nuclear arms control treaty between the US and Russia) in the US Senate.
A key player in this struggle may be Sen. Jon Kyl of Ariz., whose opposition to the treaty is well-known, although for months he has held out the possibility of a compromise. In particular, Kyl has appeared to pin his eventual "support for the treaty to a boost in funding to modernize the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons", according to the Associated Press yesterday.
Perhaps the Administration hopes to turn Kyl's opposition into eventual support by offering up additional sweeteners; viz., in the form of guarantees of increased funding for the nuclear weapons program, or even by agreeing to proceed with the development of new nuclear weapons designs.
Of course, the Administration's Nuclear Posture Review of this past spring was explicit in its refusal to permit work on any new warhead designs. And, the current heads of the three nuclear weapons laboratories wrote letters in support of the NPR, albeit not without some grumbling.
For example, as reported by David Kramer in Physics Today, issue of July 24, 2010:
Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) director Michael Anastasio told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on 15 July that lab managers have "both the authority and the responsibility" to replace aging weapons components "on a case-by-case basis" if that is judged to be the best approach. While admitting he would prefer having no restrictions put on the labs’ options for extending warhead lifetimes, Anastasio said language in the administration’s April Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) provides "an adequate level of flexibility to carry out our mission.”
Similarly, while expressing reservations, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director George Miller pronounced the NPR restriction "workable," and said it "would permit his weapons designers to bring forward all the options for consideration."
However, a group of ten former heads of the three nuke labs were moved to denounce important parts of the NPR. In the same Physics Today story we find that:
In a May letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the 10 former directors said the NPR "imposes unnecessary constraints on our engineers and scientists when it states that 'the United States will give strong preference to options for refurbishment or reuse’ and that the replacement of nuclear components ‘would be undertaken only if critical Stockpile Management Program goals could not otherwise be met, and if specifically authorized by the President and approved by Congress.'”
The former lab directors warned that the "higher bar" set by the NPR for replacement of components will "stifle the creative and imaginative thinking that typifies the excellent
history of progress and development at the national laboratories, and indeed will inhibit the NPR’s goal of honing the specialized skills needed to sustain the current deterrent."
They added that the NPR restrictions will add to the risk that the country has taken on by not testing its nuclear weapons.
In their letter, the former directors also fretted that science, engineering, non-nuclear testing, and other laboratory programs will be starved to pay for cost overruns that have become inevitable during the construction of the facilities needed to clean up the Department of Energy’s cold war weapons production complex. And they warned that the administration’s budget projections for the construction of a multibillion-dollar plutonium research and pit production facility at LANL, and for a new uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge, TN, are inadequate.
“While we are encouraged by your commitments, we are deeply concerned that most of the significant investments promised are not available until the out-years of the plan," the directors wrote. "We are concerned, having received commitments of support before, that Congress and the President will once again promise a great deal today, and then quickly forget about the nuclear weapons enterprise until something breaks.”
Signing the letter were former LANL directors Harold Agnew, Siegfried Hecker, John Browne, Pete Nanos, Robert Kuckuck, and Donald Kerr; former LLNL directors John Nuckolls, John Foster, and Michael May; and former Sandia National Laboratory director C. Paul Robinson.
But Roy Schwitters, a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told senators he disagreed with the former directors' statements, arguing that there are enough technical and scientific challenges within the scope of the NPR to provide opportunities for staffs to grow professionally. Schwitters chaired a sub-panel of JASON, the self-perpetuating scientific advisory committee, that last year reviewed the NNSA’s technical plan for extending the life of the stockpile. That review found no evidence that an accumulation of changes incurred from aging or from earlier life extension programs has increased the risk that deployed warheads won’t work as they’re supposed to. It also advised that the lifetimes of the weapons could be extended for decades with no loss in confidence. But Schwitters noted how one life extension program currently underway, the W-76 warhead for Trident missiles, actually employs a combination of refurbishment, reuse, and replacement.
So who's right and who's wrong here? Well, the "experts" seem to be divided along lines, at least partly, of self-interest. By this I mean that:
Out of self-interest, current nuke lab directors would be expected to accede, generally, to the administration's point-of-view. Thus, theirs is an unconvincing endorsement of the administration's position.
On the other hand, although former directors can more freely express themselves, they speak from an experience steeped in the culture of nuclear weapons design, and the interests of nuclear weapons designers. We will return to this point in an moment.
What about the opinions of Prof. Schwitters? Well, as a member of the JASON's, his views may be conditioned by connections both to the nuclear weapons industry and to the military and civilian political establishments, but in unknown proportions. Nevertheless, it would seem to be in the interests of a JASON for his judgment to appear to be unbiased and straightforward. So, after all, his view may be the most credible.
Finally, coming back to the ten former nuke lab directors, it is clear enough to me that their complaints were based upon parochial concerns.
For example, they warned that the NPR will "stifle the creative and imaginative thinking that typifies the excellent history of progress and development at the national laboratories, and indeed will inhibit the NPR’s goal of honing the specialized skills needed to sustain the current deterrent." But, the creative and imaginative thinking to which they referred could really only not be stifled if the goals of the nuclear weapons program themselves were not stifled. Such was the situation in the fifties and early sixties, at the height of the cold war, but no longer!
Moreover, they said that "the NPR restrictions will add to the risk that the country has taken on by not testing its nuclear weapons." Admittedly, such a risk would be difficult to quantify, or even estimate, but they've made no attempt whatsoever to do so. It seems to me that they were just fear-mongering.
Furthermore, as reported in Physics Today "the former directors also fretted that science, engineering, non-nuclear testing, and other laboratory programs will be starved to pay for cost overruns that have become inevitable during the construction of the facilities needed to clean up the Department of Energy’s cold war weapons production complex." But, the cleanup of toxic waste, accumulated from the nuclear weapons program over a period of more than fifty years, and now costing ~$6 billion annually, is necessary for the safety and well-being of all Americans. It does not seem to be a fitting subject for public lamentation by former nuke lab directors.
"And they warned that the administration’s budget projections for the construction of a multibillion-dollar plutonium research and pit production facility at LANL, and for a new uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge, TN, are inadequate." Indeed! The next phase of construction of the CMRR at Los Alamos is projected to cost in excess of $4 billion, with a similar amount slated for Oak Ridge. But, whether or not any of this new construction will actually ever serve the national interest is still an open question. It is clear, however, that the continuation of this project would be in the pecuniary interest of those who are wedded to ongoing nuclear weapons operations at Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge, and to the nuclear weapons industry, generally.
Today, 11-18-10, I'm returning to this blogpost to take note of the latest development. Two days ago Sen. Kyl made clear that he is unwilling to proceed farther down the path toward ratification of the New Start Treaty, until the next Congress is seated, in January.
After all, I suppose, why should the Kyl group accept half a package of Treaty concessions from Pres. Obama now, when they might expect to get a full package by waiting just two more months? And, if they can't get the concessions that they want, then they could instead vote the Treaty down. Scuttling the Treaty would be in accord with the Kyl group notion that arms-control treaties between Russia and the United States act to limit the actions of the US, by far the stronger of the two parties, unnecessarily. Such treaties, they would argue, cannot be in the interest of the US.
It seems that the President must resort to the bully pulpit to explain clearly, and forcefully, to the entire nation, the importance of immediately ratifying the New Start Treaty.