The Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC has unleashed a spate of editorials, letters, interviews, broadcasts, podcasts, tweets and posts about nuclear weapons. As an activist who has worked for nuclear disarmament for thirty years, it is gratifying to see the issue getting some notice.
Unfortunately, that’s about where the gratification ends. I live twenty-two miles from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the US government is, right now, cranking out thermonuclear highly enriched uranium cores for W76-1 warheads as part of the Stockpile Life Extension program which is almost exactly what it sounds like—except they don’t just extend the life of the warhead for another 40-100 years, they also modify and upgrade it to introduce new military capabilities. They’ve been building these components in Oak Ridge ever since the country went thermonuclear in 1949.
This is the new global arms race. It’s not something that might happen in the future. It is already happening, right now, though you haven’t heard about it because the headlines are about terrorism, global warming and Donald Trump—all legitimate worries, to be sure. But the idea that a new nuclear arms race can take place under the radar is legitimately terrifying.
At the Security Summit, and in his Washington Post editorial piece, President Obama noted the gains made during his administration while recognizing there are still challenges to be met. If you don’t know any more about it than what you are reading in the newspaper, you might think the US is ever-so-slowly, incrementally, moving toward the world free of nuclear weapons Obama embraced in 2009, for which he was prematurely gifted with a Nobel Peace Prize. Obama says we are taking concrete steps. He brazenly claims we are strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime.
What is not being mentioned so much is the stark reality of this: over the next thirty years, the United States will spend one trillion dollars to upgrade its nuclear force—new warheads, new bombs, new submarines, new jets, new missiles, new bomb plants—from the ground up we are pursuing an entirely new nuclear capability.
Strengthening the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime? The US has rebuffed calls by non-nuclear nations to deliver on the promise we made in 1969, when the Treaty was signed, to pursue complete disarmament “at an early date.” A global movement to outlaw nuclear weapons has been building over the last two years—the US is not taking part. The Marshall Islands, victims of nuclear test blasts for decades, brought suit against the nuclear weapons states in the World Court last year—the US has turned its back on the court and refused to participate. Why? Why not go to the World Court, Mr. President, and present your grand work to strengthen the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime, and let your actions be your defense?
Some of us know why. We’re the ones who have been tracking this issue for decades. We’ve heard all your speeches, but we’ve also seen what’s happened on your watch. And actions, as they say, speak louder than words.
The new global nuclear arms race is not news to some of us in Tennessee because we are at Ground Zero of the whole thing. Here, in Oak Ridge, the government is planning a new bomb plant, called the Uranium Processing Facility, at the same complex we used to enriched the uranium fuel for the Little Boy bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. It’s even still called by its Manhattan Project code name, Y-12. You can look it up. This new bomb plant, the UPF, will be the flagship of the new, “modernized” nuclear weapons complex—did you tell everyone at the Nuclear Security Summit you were investing billions in bomb plants to expand our nation’s nuclear weapon production capacity, Mr. President?
I say “planning a new bomb plant” because they have spent almost 3 billion dollars designing the UPF bomb plant and they don’t have a design yet. It will cost many more billions to actually build it, if they do. Citizens here have been working for ten years to stop them, and so far, so good. But the toughest work is still to come.
So the Obama Administration is using the occasion of the Security Summit to tell you all its nuclear feel good stories. What they aren’t telling you is the raw truth that renders all of those accomplishments virtually meaningless. If they make you feel good, great. But don’t be fooled by your feelings, because they aren’t the truth—and we ignore the truth at our peril.
I saw a wee bit of coverage of the Nuclear Summit on CSPAN-2 today, and at the close the moderator used the perfect phrase to describe what we get if we ignore the truth—catastrophic consequences.
The truth is the United States is investing a trillion dollars on nuclear weapons, starting with new bomb production plants and ending with new missiles to carry new warheads to targets halfway around the world. In response—I say that because we are the ones leading this arms race—Russia and China are moving to upgrade their arsenals as well. Every day, the nuclear threat is growing. And every dollar spent on it is, in the words of Dwight Eisenhower, the theft of a slice of bread from a child who is hungry and is not fed.
A trillion dollars will buy a lot of bread. Or build a lot of homes. Or create a lot of jobs. Or hire a lot of teachers, repair a lot of bridges, provide a lot of health care. But it won’t if it is used to build bomb plants, then missiles, which will be buried in silos, and loaded on submarines where they will sit, brooding, waiting, tempting the men (and very few women) in power, threatening the lives of our children and their children, holding the earth itself in harm’s way.
When the President described the challenges still facing us he pointed his finger at Russia, then at North Korea. Here’s what he said we need to do: Negotiate to reduce—not eliminate, just reduce—our stockpiles further. We know he thinks something like 1,000 is an appropriate number to scare the rest of the world into thinking twice before attacking us (except for suicide bombers, but who would be crazy enough to blow themselves up just to hurt the US?). And he said the US should ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty—a piece of paper, just like the Nonproliferation Treaty we’ve been ignoring since 1970. When then-President Clinton signed the CTBT he congratulated himself on his great gesture then noted, just in case anyone wondered, that we fully intended to abide by the treaty unless we decided it was in our supreme national interest not to. In other words, the treaty ultimately meant nothing.
This is the world we live in. To pretend otherwise is to deceive ourselves. If we don’t object, we not only bear a moral responsibility akin to those who were bystanders during the holocaust, we rob ourselves and future generations of trillions of dollars that could be used to purchase true security—jobs, education, housing, health care— and we rob ourselves of our own self-respect because we know ourselves as those who threaten the utter and complete annihilation of others, and we rob ourselves and future generations of the peace and security that can never be ours as long as we maintain the ominous nuclear cloud over our children’s generation, and their children’s and on and on into the future until the day the bombs are used and there is no future anymore.