President Obama's plans for reducing the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons and production of fissile materials signal changes ahead for the nation's nuclear strategy and weapons labs.
"The basic bargain is sound: Countries with nuclear weapons will move toward disarmament, countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them, and all countries can access peaceful nuclear energy," Obama said in a speech yesterday in Prague.
"If we are serious about stopping the spread of these weapons, then we should put an end to the dedicated production of weapons-grade materials that create them. That's the first step."
While much of the speech pointed to long-term goals, Obama said that in four years he aims to safeguard currently unsecured radioactive material on black markets through better detection of materials in transit and through "financial tools."
Obama particularly highlighted the U.S.-Russia collaboration, urging its expansion as well as the creation of new partnerships and higher standards. In a meeting last week, Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said they will begin negotiations in July to further reduce both nations' nuclear weapons stockpiles.
To further his goal, Obama said he will seek to "strengthen" the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by providing resources for international inspections and establishing "real and immediate consequences for countries caught breaking the rules or trying to leave the treaty without cause." He will also boost support for the nation's Proliferation Security Initiative and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism to make them into "durable international institutions." Obama's blueprint budget released in February shows an increase in funds for nonproliferation programs.
Obama also said he plans to host a global summit on nuclear security within the next year.
Obama said he will "aggressively" push for the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which bans the testing of nuclear weapons. The United States has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1993 and has signed the treaty but has yet to ratify it, along with China, North Korea, Pakistan and several other countries.
Laura Holgate, vice president for Russia/new independent states programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, said Obama's commitment and focus on nuclear nonproliferation should turn nonproliferation initiatives from an ad hoc effort to "more institutionalized mechanisms for nonproliferation."
As for Obama's four-year goal on securing nuclear material, Holgate said it will be "tough" but worthy.
"There is a lot to be done, unfortunately," Holgate said. "I think there has been a lot of damage done to the U.S. stature in the world. I think we need to repair that damage. It's a lofty goal, a worthy one, [and] certainly a goal the U.S. cannot accomplish on its own."
All of these goals will have serious consequences for the Energy Department's nuclear weapons labs, which have been the subject of intense debate recently.
DOE's nuclear weapons programs -- including nonproliferation -- received $9 billion in funds for the past two years, which is about one-third of the department's budget. Almost two-thirds of the budget is used to maintain the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.
Efforts to shrink the weapons stockpile or Obama's decision to cancel work on the advanced nuclear weapon known as the "reliable replacement warhead" in his recent budget puts into question NNSA's size and budget for the future, said Philip Coyle, a senior adviser at the World Security Institute and a former top official for nuclear operations and testing in the Defense Department.
"Assumptions made about how many nuclear warheads might be produced in the future are key to sizing the NNSA production complex for the future," Coyle said at a recent congressional hearing. "Now that the Obama administration has made a decision to halt the RRW, the production workload for complex transformation can be cut in half," he said.
A small nuclear weapons stockpile will mean less work and less funding for the nation's laboratories -- an alarming scenario for the labs' thousands of scientists and other workers in places like New Mexico, California, Nevada, Tennessee and Idaho. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) has said laying off the scientists in the labs could potentially be a national security threat, as scientists could be tempted to seek employment elsewhere.
The changing role of the labs and DOE's focus on renewable energy and technology have also prompted calls for a transfer of the nuclear weapons responsibility to the Defense Department or an independent entity. The Office of Management and Budget directed DOE, DOD and the National Nuclear Security Administration -- the independent agency under DOE that manages the nuclear stockpile -- to review such a move and report their findings in a report by September.
Lawmakers have been asking the administration to hold off on making any major decisions about the nuclear weapons labs until Obama officially releases his "nuclear posture review" in January 2010 -- although this could be a strong indication of what that report will find. They have also been emphasizing a lot of the other missions the labs work on, including nonproliferation and forensics (E&ENews PM, March 30).
Obama also emphasized that all countries that renounce nuclear weapons should have access to peaceful nuclear energy, listing the fight against global warming alongside the need to reduce nuclear weapons.
"We must harness the power of nuclear energy on behalf of our efforts to combat climate change and to advance peace opportunity for all people," Obama said.
The world must create an international fuel bank so countries can get fuel without having to enrich uranium themselves -- a road that could lead to the capacity to create nuclear weapons, Obama said. Obama introduced legislation supporting such a bank when he was a senator. The International Atomic Energy Agency recently achieved a $100 million financial benchmark laid out by the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which will match it with $50 million contribution (E&ENews PM, March 6).
The United Arab Emirates has been praised for its decision to move forward with a civil nuclear program by promising not to seek enrichment capabilities. President George W. Bush signed a civil nuclear agreement with the country last year but did not submit it to the Senate. The Obama administration is still considering the agreement.
But others are concerned about the two dozen countries previously without a reactor currently showing interest in nuclear power, including Algeria, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.