Monday, March 05, 2007

Nuclear weapons? Are they still around?

Yeah, they are. The arguments for them shift with the sands of political convenience and conditions - the argument now is against "rogue" states instead of the "evil empire" - but they're still around.

We were reminded of that late last month when the Pentagon announced it had cancelled plans for "Divine Strake," a test to have involved detonating 700 tons of ammonium nitrate and fuel oil over an existing tunnel at the Nevada test site for the purpose of simulating ground shock effects of either "conventional" or nuclear weapons (such as the now-defunct "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator") intended as bunker-busters. One reason for opposition to the test was that it was expected to toss up a mushroom cloud of soil contaminated by radiation from previous nuclear tests which might carry beyond the bounds of the site.

(Interestingly, in announcing the change of plans, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency denied that the decision was based on concerns that the test would be harmful to workers, the general public, or the environment. They just had an Emily Litella moment, that's all.)

More importantly, the US remains committed to
a plan to build a new nuclear weapons facility[, reports the Friends Committee on National Legislation]. This facility would have the capacity to build 125 to 200 plutonium “triggers” or pits for nuclear weapons annually. Plutonium pits are an essential component of modern nuclear warheads. The new plutonium pit production facility is a key element of what the administration is calling Complex 2030, a comprehensive plan to update, reorganize, and rebuild the nuclear weapons complex.
And two pointed reminders emerged in the past few days. The first of those was the complaint on Friday by German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung that the US is negotiating with Poland and the Czech Republic for the placement there of "forward deployable radar" systems and missile interceptors as part of a US missile defense system - without consulting with NATO allies. "We should discuss developing such a defense measure within a NATO framework," he said.

The second, a day later, was the announcement by the Shrub team that it had selected the design for America's first new nuclear warhead in nearly two decades. The purpose, we were assured, was "simply" to replace existing Trident nuclear warheads with "safer" ones.
"This is not about starting a new nuclear arms race," said Thomas P D'Agostino, acting head of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).
Of course it's not. It never is. Even though that's been the history of nuclear weapons since the 1960s - gradually fewer numbers of gradually more destructive and technically-advanced warheads - every time there's a new weapon, a new design, a new advance, a new test, it's never about a "new nuclear arms race." It's about "security," about "defense," about (the now-popular excuse) the "safety" and "reliability" of our "deterrent," and if "they" respond in some way, well, then "they" are the bad ones, the aggressive ones, the threatening ones, which only "proves" the need for our "security" measures.

But that's self-serving nonsense, as at least some in Congress managed to realize.
Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was among the critics in Congress.

"The minute you begin to put more sophisticated nuclear warheads on the existing fleet, you are essentially creating a new nuclear weapon. And it's just a matter of time before other nations do the same," the Associated Press quotes her as saying.

"This could serve to encourage the very proliferation we are trying to prevent."
There's no could about it, others will react insofar as they are able. They are already. For example,
Russia has condemned the US plan [for missile defense sites in Eastern Europe] and says it is developing new missiles. ...

"Let them deploy it. It is their problem. We have everything we need to respond to all these deployments in a commensurate way," Russian air force commander Vladimir Mikhaylov told Rossiya TV.

Moscow has warned Poland and the Czech Republic that they risk being targeted by Russian missiles if they agree to host the US defence system.
What's more, as others have noted, it seems quite stupid for the US to be pushing new nuclear weapons and facilities and new missile defense systems at a time when it's trying to get North Korea and Iran to give up on their (real or suspected) nuclear ambitions.

(North Korea is definitely pursuing nuclear weapons and might even have some, although that test last October was such a bust that it raises questions as to whether or not they've actually successfully assembled a bomb. Iran, on the other hand, is more likely than not after nukes, despite its denials, but the question isn't closed - and in any event, it is years away from getting them.)

It's especially stupid coming as it does in the immediate wake of the admission by US intelligence agencies that, contrary to five years of claims by the White House, they actually aren't sure if North Korea has been pursuing a secret uranium enrichment program. It was those claims that the Shrub gang had used to justify pulling out of the agreement the Clinton administration had cut with Pyongyang to halt its plutonium development. As the New York Times noted on Thursday,
[t]he United States cut off oil supplies, and the North Koreans responded by throwing out international inspectors, building up their plutonium arsenal and, ultimately, producing that first plutonium bomb.
Last month, North Korea agreed at the so-called six-party talks to take some steps toward shutting down its nuclear program in return for economic and energy aid. Personally, I suspect the supposedly revised intelligence thinking - and the leaking of it - are just covers to allow the Bushites to agree to such a deal, which would amount to returning to what the Clinton White House had obtained, without having to admit both that they completely botched yet another situation and that the Clinton deal, which they vociferously denounced for years, was actually the best that could be gotten.

Even so, any glimpse of sanity remains to be confirmed. Because stupidity by the White House in matters of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons proliferation is not limited to North Korea. In the middle of all this, on Saturday, Muammar Qaddaffi griped that Libya
has not been given adequate compensation for its decision to renounce nuclear weapons in 2003.

Speaking to the BBC, Colonel Gaddafi said the failure by the West to reward Libya meant Iran and North Korea were reluctant to follow Tripoli's lead.
Libya did get some limited benefit in the lifting of sanctions the resumption of diplomatic ties with the US and the UK, and its removal from the US's list of "state sponsors of terror." (We'll leave for another time the obvious question of why giving up a nuclear weapons program means you can't be a "state sponsor of terror" and the equally-obvious related question of if that means such a listing is more a weapon of coercion than a factual description.)
However, Col Gaddafi says the West has not properly compensated his country because it has failed to transform its nuclear weapons programme into nuclear power. ...

"This should be a model to be followed, but Libya is disappointed because the promises given by America and Britain were not fulfilled," he said. ...

"They said if you abolish your war programme we will help you to develop your nuclear abilities into peaceful ones. This has not happened."
Why then, he wondered, should Iran or North Korea put any stock in such assurances? It's a good question. And if we as a nation really are serious about containing nuclear weapons proliferation, if we really are serious about a nuclear weapons-free world, we also should be asking questions about our own new nuclear weapons facilities, our own new nuclear weapons designs, and our own repeated failure to keep our word. And once we do that, we need to ask questions about our own continued possession of the weapons themselves.

Footnote: The "Doomsday Clock" of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now stands at 11:55 PM, having been moved two minutes closer to the midnight of nuclear war in January after standing at seven minutes to midnight since 2002. The news of North Korea and Iran were not the only forces driving the change: The potential for environmental collapse from climate change and the mass conflicts that would engender also figured in the decision.

The clock has appeared on the cover of the magazine since 1947. The time displayed has ranged from as little as two minutes to midnight (in 1953) to 17 minutes to midnight (in 1991).

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