Posts from September, 2011

A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World

FAS published a new Issue Brief, “A Nuclear-Free Mirage? Obstacles to President Obama’s Goal of a Nuclear Weapons Free World.” Dr. Robert Standish Norris, Senior Fellow for Nuclear Policy at FAS was interviewed by Charles Blair, Director of FAS’s Terrorism Analysis Project, about the obstacles to the implementation of the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). After twenty years since the end of the Cold War, how far down the path are we toward a nuclear weapons free world? Despite President Obama’s goal of eventual nuclear disarmament, Dr. Norris explains why the latest effort to alter the role of nuclear weapons—a necessity if we seek to eliminate them—is likely to falter. Listen to the FAS Podcast here.

Almost two decades have passed since the United States seriously considered reducing the role of its nuclear weapons. The earlier effort—the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review—failed to narrow the broad array of missions assigned to U.S. nuclear forces. Thus, despite significant decreases in the numbers of nuclear weapons, the end of the Cold War precipitated no net downsizing of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure; indeed its collective budget continues to exceed Cold War spending levels. However, President Obama’s 2009 Prague speech harkened back to the halcyon early days of the Post-Cold War world; the President promised to “take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons.”[1]  One year later, In April 2010, the Obama Administration released its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), formally articulating a strategy toward a “world free of nuclear weapons.”

Today’s interview with Robert Norris explores the 2010 NPR. Specifically, it addresses how the NPR seeks to achieve President Obama’s vision of a nuclear weapon free world. Unfortunately, Dr. Norris concludes that the NPR is “not up to the task of bringing about this goal.” Why? Dr. Norris argues that a sine qua non to lower levels of nuclear weapons and their eventual elimination is an immediate reduction in their missions. Dr. Norris argues that today “there is only one job left for nuclear weapons: to deter the use of nuclear weapons.”[2] As the NPR goes through its implementation process, Dr. Norris explains, opposition to the types of changes envisioned by the President Obama mount.  “It has to do with constituencies and bureaucracies and careers and budgets and a whole host of things that were the driving forces behind the arms race to begin with,” Dr. Norris explains, adding that, “many of those things are still in place, still operative, [and] resistant to radical kinds of changes.

Alarmingly, listeners should be mindful that these obstacles to President Obama’s vision toward a nuclear weapons free world have gone largely unreported by the media and unexplored by most policy-based non-profit think-tanks. In this regard, FAS stands virtually alone in its exploration of the implementation of the 2010 NPR and its increasingly ephemeral vision of a world free from nuclear weapons.

To read the podcast transcript, click here (PDF).


[1] Remark by President Barack Obama, Hradcany Square, Prague, Czech Republic, April 5, 2009. Available at: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-By-President-Barack-Obama-In-Prague-As-Delivered/

[2] Hans M. Kristensen, Robert S. Norris, and Ivan Oelrich, From Counterforce to Minimal Deterrence: A New Nuclear Policy on the Path Toward Eliminating Nuclear Weapons. Federation of American Scientists, Occasional Paper 7. April 2009, p. 1. Available at: http://www.fas.org/press/news/2009/apr_newreport.html

New Nuclear Notebook: British Nuclear Forces 2011

The British Cold War stockpile was bigger than previously thought but will be the smallest of the five original nuclear weapons states by the mid-2020s.     Click image for bigger version

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By Hans M. Kristensen

Britain’s disclosure last year of the size of its nuclear weapons stockpile shows, when combined with official information released earlier, that its Cold War nuclear stockpile was bigger than previously thought – more than 500 nuclear warheads in the 1970s.

Since then, Britain has reduced its stockpile by more than half to approximately 225 warheads and has decided to reduce it further to 180 warheads by the mid-2020s, a reduction of two-thirds compared with the Cold War level.

Modernization and continuous deployment at sea continues, however, and current plans might ironically lead to an increase in the number of warheads carried on each operational missile.

This and more is described in our latest Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

See also: Previous British Nuclear Notebook from 2005

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Produce to Reduce: The Hedge Gamble

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the fourth of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See previous posts: 1, 2, 3.

The FY2012 SSMP repeats the promise made in numerous previous government documents and official statements: construction of new factories with greater warhead production capability might enable retirement of some “hedge” warheads after the “responsive complex” has come online in the early-2020s and thereby reduce the overall size of the stockpile.

Today, the United States has approximately 2,150 operational warheads and another 2,850 in the hedge, for a stockpile total of 5,000. The FY2011 SSMP stated (Annex D, p. 2) that the planned production complex would be able to support a stockpile of 3,000-3,500 warheads, a level 1,500-2,000 warheads below today’s stockpile. However, it did not provide a timetable or strategy for any such reductions.

The FY2012 SSMP does, however, place conditions on further reductions. The report states that the number of nuclear weapons in the nation’s stockpile “may be reduced…if planned LEPs are completed successfully, the future infrastructure of the NNSA enterprise is achieved, and geopolitical stability permits” (emphasis added). The first two items on this list will not be accomplished for at least twenty years, but the plan shows that production of “hedge” warheads will continue even after that.

Specifically, the FY2012 SSNP states that this new production capacity is required “regardless of the size of stockpile” and shows that NNSA now plans to produce W78 hedge warheads during the 2021-2024 W78 LEP and even “continue production of additional hedge warheads” through 2035.

NNSA Plans Production of More Hedge Warheads
Despite a promise that construction of new warhead production facilities will permit a reduction of the “hedge” of non-deployed warheads in the stockpile, the FY2012 SSMP shows that the new facilities will be used to produce “additional hedge warheads.” The key phrase is enlarged above. Click on image to see the original.

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The chart hints that hedge warhead production might also be part of the other warhead LEPs in the NNSA plan. The reason for the additional W78 hedge production in 2025-2035 is not stated. Right now, there are approximately 600 W78s in the stockpile, of which 350 are in the hedge. Are they planning to increase the latter number? Or is that simply continuing production of the “common or adaptable” warhead that would be actually used in the W88 LEP later on? Have other LEPs not been performed on warheads in the hedge, but they will here? The answer is a mystery.

Yet the use of new warhead production facilities to produce additional hedge warheads undermines the administration’s message that the new facilities are needed to allow a reduction of the stockpile. It suggests that even with a new “responsive” warhead production complex, the future stockpile will still include a sizeable hedge of reserve warheads.

Additionally, although the SSMP states that these facilities are needed to “maintain a safe, secure, and reliable arsenal over the long term,” these facilities will not be operational until most of the currently planned Life Extension Programs are either completed or well underway. That makes the plan to use the new facilities to produce additional hedge warheads particularly problematic.

About the authors: Nickolas Roth is Policy Fellow for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a graduate student at the University of Maryland, Hans M. Kristensen is the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, and Stephen Young is a Senior Analyst at Union of Concerned Scientists.

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

Hydrodynamic Tests: Not to Scale

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the third of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See previous posts: 1, 2, 4.

Since the 1950s, the performance of U.S. nuclear warheads has been successfully validated using a wide range of simulation experiments, such as the compression of fissile material in hydrodynamic tests. And as the stockpile ages “and modernization design options become more complex,” the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP) states, “subcritical experiment that include special nuclear material will become more important” (emphasis added). (Special nuclear material refers to highly enriched uranium and plutonium, which are key components of a nuclear weapon.)

The SSMP and other documents describe an interest in a type of hydrodynamic test called a “scaled experiment,” which uses more special nuclear material and more closely resembles actual warhead designs. The public justification is to “improve confidence in predictive capabilities and help validate simulation codes,” but part of the reason is also that those codes will become less reliable if NNSA changes the warhead designs by adding new safety and security features during the Life Extension Programs. Continue Reading →

Ambitious Warhead Life Extension Programs

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the second of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See the other posts: 1, 3, 4.

According to the FY2012 Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan (SSMP), from 2011 to 2031, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) plans to spend almost $16 billion on Life Extension Programs (LEPs) to extend the service life and significantly modify almost every warhead in the enduring stockpile. This includes an estimated $3.7 billion on the W88 warhead, $3.9 billion on the B61 bomb, $4.2 billion on the W78 warhead, $1.7 billion on the W76 warhead, and $2.3 billion on the W80-1 warhead. Continue Reading →

Nuclear Plan Conflicts with New Budget Realities

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By Nickolas Roth, Hans M. Kristensen and Stephen Young

Note: This is the first of four posts analyzing the FY 2012 Stockpile Stewardship Management Plan, each jointly produced by the Federation of American Scientists and Union of Concerned Scientists. See the other posts here: 2, 3, 4.

A new nuclear weapons plan from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which seeks further increases in spending over the next decade for nuclear weapons and for weapons production and simulation facilities, will face real challenges in the new budget environment.

The FY2012 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan (SSMP), which was sent to Congress in April, is NNSA’s outline of its near- and long-term plans and associated costs for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile and supporting infrastructure. However, with national security spending facing real cuts below FY2011 levels for the next two years at a minimum, either the NNSA must overcome that trend or cut back on its plans.

The FY2012 SSMP is unclassified but has two secret annexes. The new plan updates, with input from Congress, the FY2011 SSMP published last year, and is the first plan to fully incorporate the recommendations of the Obama administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review. Continue Reading →