UCS Blog - All Things Nuclear (text only)

Do Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Hold the Key to Peace in Northeast Asia?

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in 1969. Wise beyond their years?

I’m not a Rolling Stones fan. There’s something a little dark about their music. I prefer the Beatles, who offered more light and love to listeners. But when it comes to hope for a peaceful way out of the Korean War, the songwriters for the Stones may have given us the key to ending it.

The war started in June of 1950 when Kim Jong-un’s grandfather sent his army south to unify his country, which was divided in half at the end of World War II. He almost succeeded. The United States stopped him. But instead of putting things back the way they were, US forces pushed north to eliminate Kim the elder and his communist government. They almost succeeded. The People’s Republic of China stopped them. The fighting ended in 1953—at the same dividing line where it started—but the war did not.

To make a really long story ridiculously short, the North and the South, the United States and China continuously prepare to carry on the fight. They’ve packed an unimaginably large amount of military hardware into Northeast Asia and ostentatiously practice using it. The balance of forces has been tilting against North Korea for quite awhile. China isn’t the reliably militant communist ally it was in 1950. The North’s economy is tiny and crippled by UN sanctions. But it has one thing going for it: nuclear weapons.

The Kim family dynasty sacrificed a lot to get them. The idea that the grandson is going to give them up before there’s major changes in the current situation, including a formal end to the war, is wishful thinking.

The United States and China have nuclear weapons too. Theirs are legal. North Korea’s are not. The Kims signed a treaty promising they wouldn’t make them. The United States and China signed the same treaty promising they would get rid of theirs but, whatever. For a long time now the United States has been ratcheting up the pressure on North Korea, first to stop them from trying to make nuclear weapons and, now that they’ve succeeded, to give them up. Things got pretty tense a few years ago. Fighting words were flying. Missiles too. Then the Olympics happened.

I love the Olympics. It’s one of those moments we’re all reminded we can love our own countries and compete with people from other ones without hating and killing them. In that spirit the leader of the South invited the leader of the North to meet and talk. There’s been a lot of meeting and talking since then. But every time the talk gets round to ending the war some cranky US somebody or another tells the North, “Only if you give us your nuclear weapons first!” He got sent off to Mongolia before the last meeting and things seemed to get better.

China’s leader, just back from his first visit to North Korea, seems to have put a new deal together. I call it the everybody chills plan. North Korea freezes its nuclear weapons program; the bombs and the missiles, but gets to keep what it’s got. The United States relaxes its military posture but gets to keep its troops in the neighborhood and parade them around as long as it does it more politely. China and South Korea get to help North Korea improve its economy, but UN sanctions that put some limits on what kind of help they can provide and how North Korea uses it remain in place.

Lots of good things could happen if everybody chills. First, no war or threats of war. That’s not a small thing. If they can keep that up for awhile everybody may get more comfortable with the idea of putting it in writing.  Second, North Korea can sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. Just saying no to nuclear testing is always a good idea. Third, the UN can get its inspectors back in North Korea to make sure its nuclear arsenal isn’t getting bigger or better. That seems like a real plus to me. Finally, and most importantly, the poor people of North Korea can catch a much-deserved break. Nobody has suffered more from all of this than they have.

Yeah, North Korea gets to keep its nuclear weapons. That’s not good. The United States and everyone else threatened by those weapons will still have to worry about them. But that’s where the Stones come in. When it comes to North Korea, as to many things in human life, you can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.


The House is Setting a New, More Rational Direction for US Nuclear Policy

The House today began debating its version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress’ annual effort to oversee US security policy and set defense program funding levels. What’s different this year is the bill signals a new, much-needed change in direction for US nuclear weapons policy, one that would reduce the nuclear threat and cut some spending on these weapons.

The House bill stands in stark contrast with the version the Senate passed easily in late June, which would fully fund the Trump administration’s nuclear programs and in some cases even increase funding. We support passage of the House version of the NDAA; if its version becomes law, it will be a victory not only for US security, but also for common sense.

The House bill is chock-full of positive provisions. For example, it would prohibit deployment of the Trump administration’s new “low-yield” nuclear warhead; cut funding for an unnecessary replacement for the current ground-based intercontinental ballistic missile; and reduce the excessive, but congressionally mandated, requirement for the number of plutonium pits that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has been told to produce.

Rep. Adam Smith speaking at a Ploughshares Fund event

This new, rational direction in nuclear policy is being spearheaded by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the new chair of the House Armed Services Committee and an outspoken critic of many of the Trump administration’s nuclear weapons policies. He and his like-minded colleagues are using their newly minted majority power to rethink the role that nuclear weapons play in US security policy.

Defunds W76-2 “low-yield” warhead

The W76-2 “low-yield” warhead, which would be deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, is an ill-conceived attempt to lower the threshold for nuclear war. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry and other experts have written, the W76-2 is “dangerous, unjustified, and redundant.” It would thrust US ballistic-missile submarines into regional conflicts instead of reserving them for their crucial role as a nuclear deterrent, providing a secure means of retaliation if they should ever be needed.

The Trump administration requested $19.6 million for the Navy to begin installing these new warheads on missiles later this year. The House defense authorization bill sensibly zeros out this money, but Republicans plan to offer an amendment to the bill on the House floor that would restore that funding. Fortunately, the amendment is unlikely to pass. Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee have twice attempted to restore the money and failed along party lines both times., The House Appropriations Committee also eliminated funding for the low-yield warhead, and the full House already rejected an attempt to restore the W76-2 money in an appropriations bill by a 236 to 192 vote.

Cuts funding for Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent

The House bill would cut $103 million from the Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent, the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) being developed to replace the existing Minuteman III missile by 2030. The bill also initially called for an independent study of options that could extend the Minuteman III’s life to 2050. This would postpone spending on the new ICBM, which some estimates expect to cost $100 billion. Republicans in the Armed Services Committee, however, succeeded in removing that study requirement. Fortunately, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) has submitted an amendment that would restore a version of the independent study. Extending the life of the Minuteman III instead of building a new missile is a reasonable, cost-saving option that could facilitate an eventual phase out of the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad as the older missiles reach the end of their lives.

Reduces pit production requirements

The House defense authorization bill also reduces a congressionally mandated requirement for the NNSA to produce plutonium pits, the fissile core of nuclear weapons. In 2015, Congress passed a law mandating that the NNSA must demonstrate that it can produce 80 pits annually by 2027. A provision in this year’s Senate version of the defense authorization bill goes further, requiring the NNSA to produce80 pits per year by 2030, not simply demonstrate the capacity to do so.

The House version, conversely, reduces the 80-pit requirement to 30 pits per year by 2026. This would provide a more than adequate capacity for the foreseeable future. It makes sense for the United States to have some ability to produce pits, but there is no sound reason to require such a large number. Indeed, based on experiments conducted by scientists at the weapons laboratories, in 2007 the NNSA concludedthat most pits have a lifetime of at least 100 years. A new study is underway that will determine whether they can last even longer.

The House version of the bill includes a “Sense of Congress” provision that the NNSA should prioritize pit production at its existing manufacturing site at the Los Alamos National Laboratory instead of developing a second pit production capability at the incomplete and abandoned Mixed Oxide (MOX) fuel facility at South Carolina’s Savannah River Site, as the NNSA has proposed. The House Armed Services Committee rejected an amendment offered by Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) that attempted to retain the 80-pit- per-year requirement and supported the NNSA’s two-site proposal for pit production.

A recent congressionally mandated independent studyconcluded that none of the options considered for pit production at either one or two sites “can be expected to provide 80 [pits per year] by 2030.” The study, conducted by the Institute for Defense Analyses, also concluded that “[e]ventually achieving a production rate of 80 [pits per year] is possible for all options considered . . . but will be extremely challenging.” Additionally, the study found that NNSA cost projections for the project are unrealistically low.

Heeding the study’s conclusions, the House defense authorization bill would significantly cut funding for pit production by $241 million, to $471 million. The Senate version of the bill, by contrast, would fully fund the president’s request at $711 million.

Reconsiders the Trump administration’s proposed new nuclear warhead

The Trump administration has proposed to replace the current W78 warhead carried on Minuteman missiles with a new W87-1 warhead. This new warhead would use the new plutonium pits that the NNSA is planning to produce but, as noted above, would not be able to complete on the schedule or budget currently proposed.

If the W87-1 warhead goes forward, it would be the first new US nuclear warhead produced since the end of the Cold War. The NNSA estimates the cost to produce the W87-1 will be more than $15 billion, not including the additional cost of producing the plutonium pits, which the NNSA calculates would run $14 billion to $28 billion, an estimate that the Institute for Defense Analyses study concluded is too low.

The House bill would require the Pentagon to assess alternatives for replacing the W78 and slash W87-1 funding from $112 million to $53 million. An even better solution would be to withdraw the W78 and store it, and deploy more of the existing W87 warheads that are already on top of half of the 400 deployed Minuteman missiles. There are more than enough additional W87 warheads in storage to make this possible.

Considers a ‘no-first-use’ policy

There’s even more to like about the House defense authorization bill. For example, it would require a federally funded research and development center to assess the risks and benefits of a US no-first-use nuclear policy, including gauging the potential reactions by US allies. Rep. Smith has already introduced legislation that would make it US policy to not be the first nation to use nuclear weapons, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has introduced an identical bill in the Senate. The House bill would also require the undersecretary of defense for policy to produce a report on the Pentagon’s efforts to include the risks of an inadvertent escalation to nuclear war in its decisionmaking.

(Note that this summary does not include how the House defense authorization bill addresses missile defense issues. This is another area where the new House Armed Services Committee leadership has made a sensible change in direction, and it will be the subject of a separate post.)

What now?

The full House will take up the defense authorization bill today and is expected to put the finishing touches on the bill by Friday. As mentioned above, Republicans likely will again attempt to restore funding to deploy the W76-2. They also have offered an amendment that would remove the independent study of no-first-use, which they failed to do in the House Armed Services Committee.

With Democratic control of the House, these new amendments will likely be defeated, but the fate of the House bill as a whole is still uncertain. Some of the bill’s nuclear weapons provisions as well as some provisions regarding immigration and border security have prompted some House Republicans to say they will refuse to pass it. Likewise, some progressive Democrats are unhappy that the bill does not significantly cut the overall military budget, which totals $733 billion. If those Dems also refuse to vote in favor, it is unclear what will happen next.

The Union of Concerned Scientists supports passage of the House defense authorization bill and hopes that the final version includes the sensible provisions detailed above. The Senate passed its version of the bill in late June, authorizing the full amount requested by the president for nuclear programs and, in some cases, increasing funding.

Assuming that the full House passes its bill, it will be left up to a conference committee, where the four leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will try to work out a compromise version that can be passed by both chambers. Given the fundamental differences between the two versions, that likely will be a difficult task, but national — and international — security hangs in the balance.

Xi’s China Stands with World. Trump’s America Stands Alone.

US and Chinese delegations talk trade in Osaka, Japan.

The presidents of the United States and China met at the G-20 leadership summit in Osaka, Japan to try to put an end to a trade war that’s disrupting the global economy. They walked away with a ceasefire agreement that left everyone uncertain about the future.

Almost all of the other members of the G-20 have serious problems with the way President Xi’s China does business. Yet not a single one of them stood with President Trump. The meeting closed with what they politely called a 19+1 declaration. It would be more accurate to call it a declaration of the 20-1 .

China, the United States and the World

At the end of the last world war political, economic, social, cultural, educational and religious leaders throughout the world committed to a collective effort to avoid another world war. They agreed the best way to do that was to act, to the greatest degree possible, in support of common interests, not only national ones.  Over the decades they established institutions, laws, and common practices to work through the very difficult problems that can arise when powerful national interests are at odds with the common good.

Before the People’s Republic of China (PRC) reclaimed China’s seat in the United Nations in 1971—over the objections of the United States, which did everything it could to isolate Communist China from the rest of the world—Xi’s predecessors preached the Marxist-Leninist gospel of global revolution.  They saw the United Nations, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which eventually became the World Trade Organization (WTO), as instruments of US imperialism.  Xi’s China is still unapologetically communist. But today China is not only a member of the world order it once reviled, it is one of its biggest beneficiaries and staunchest defenders.

The United States, on the other hand, is walking away from the world order. It is withdrawing from arms control treaties, disregarding trade rules by leveling tariffs and, most importantly, telling the world it will dump as much carbon into the atmosphere as it pleases. President Trump and the officials he’s hired to represent the United States have proudly proclaimed they’re putting US national interests above the common good. They seem to have decided that most if not all of the international commitments the United States made in the past are bad deals that disadvantage the United States to the benefit of others, especially China.

Who will the rest of the world follow? If it takes after Trump’s America the consensus on avoiding world war by building international institutions and promoting global norms to protect the common interest will collapse. If it doesn’t the world is unlikely to follow a communist China with pressing human rights problems and a strident approach to territorial disputes.  Most of the rest of the world is more likely to continue to press forward as best it can without the United States. This latest meeting of the G-20 was a pretty strong signal that the post-war consensus can hold, and that China intends to help defend it.

Hopefully, President Xi will eventually recognize China needs to compromise more of its national interests to make good on that intention. His commitment to combating climate change is an encouraging sign.  Playing a more prominent role in international nuclear arms control and disarmament would be an excellent next step.

Going Forward

The United States is home to 4.3% of a global population rapidly approaching 7.6 billion. It is true that the US share of the global economy has been shrinking for quite awhile. But that’s not a sign of American decline. To the contrary, it is a reflection of the economic success in the rest of the world that US post-war internationalism intended to create.

The reason so many average Americans seem eager to walk away from the world today is not because US internationalism decreased economic disparities between nations—and in the process made the whole world a lot wealthier—but because it increased economic disparities within nations. The benefits of globalization were not shared equally among social and economic classes across countries. Discontent in China is what led to the rise of Xi Jinping. He won the Communist Party’s top spot with a promise to save the Party by rooting out corruption and rebalancing the economy. Discontent in the United States led to the rise of Donald Trump. He won his office, in part, with a promise to save America from foreigners and the supposedly bad deals his predecessors made with them.

The G-20 declaration presented a comprehensive defense of the post-WWII internationalist consensus and a unambiguous refutation of the new US nationalism. It vowed to keep international markets open and to strengthen the institutions that govern them, especially the WTO. The G-20 would have included a warning against protectionism but sought to avoid widening further its rift with the biggest offender, which isn’t China but the United States.

It also took note of “the important work of the International Panel on Climate Change” and declared the G-20 is “irreversibly” committed to the Paris Agreement. Despite vociferous and time consuming US objections, all of its members, except the United States, “reaffirmed their commitment to its full implementation.”






Trump Opens Door to Renegotiating Controversial Okinawa Base Deal

The Okinawa dugong will be evicted from its island home if the deal on a new military base struck by President Obama proceeds as planned. President Trump suggested he wants to renegotiate it.

Bloomberg News reported that President Trump “regards Japan’s repeated efforts to move a large military base in Okinawa as sort of a land grab and has raised the idea of seeking financial compensation.” The New York real estate mogul said the land the United States military is vacating “could be worth about $10 billion.” He feels it belongs to the United States. It doesn’t.

But that’s exactly how the US military feels about its bases in Okinawa. These sentiments are rooted in the brutal battle to take the island at the end of World War II that cost 12,520 American lives. The US military wanted to keep it indefinitely. Japanese public protests led the government in Tokyo to negotiate the return of Okinawa to Japan in 1972.

The base Trump was talking about is in the heart of a densely populated urban area and continuing to operate it is dangerous for US military personnel and the people living near by. But Obama’s Department of Defense would only agree to close the facility if it got a new one in return. The Japanese national government agreed to build a new base in Okinawa’s Henoko prefecture and pay the construction costs. The land under the old facility would be given back to the people who owned it before the US military appropriated the land in 1945 to build the base.

Outsiders might think the people of Okinawa would be happy. They aren’t. If you lived on the island you might see things their way.  The US military occupies about 18% of the land on the islands that make up Okinawa prefecture.  The land mass of Okinawa is only 0.6% of Japan’s total but it accounts for 74% of all the land occupied by US military bases in Japan. Just over half of all US military personnel in Japan are stationed in Okinawa, which bears a disproportionally heavy share of the cost of the US military presence in Japan.

Trump knows real estate. He’s right when he says the land occupied by the military base would be far more valuable in private hands, where it could be used to develop Okinawa’s economy, which is the poorest, by far, of any region of Japan. Military base-related revenue is a paltry 4.9% of the island’s gross income and provides only 1.4% of the island’s jobs.

Okinawans want the dangerous old base in the middle of the city closed and the land returned. They’d be happy to do the same with all the military bases on the island. The inconveniences of living on a tiny island with an enormous military footprint are too numerous to mention but there is one that deserves particular attention. Generations of Okinawan children have grown up hearing and learning impaired from the constant and literally deafening roar of the military aircraft that take off and land at those bases. The horrible sound of it all also depresses tourism—the mainstay of Okinawa’s economy—on what would otherwise be a tropical paradise.

Okinawans are not only unhappy with Obama’s deal but they’re incredibly angry about the way they were treated. Nobody asked them what they thought should be done.  They don’t think it is fair that Okinawans should be forced to accept the construction of a new base on an island already packed with them.  And Obama could not have picked a worse place to build it. The construction of the new base will destroy one of the most beautiful and biodiverse areas of the island, which contains a precious coral reef that is home to a number of beloved and endangered species.

Obama’s team tried to sell the deal to the local population with the fiction they were just moving the old base from a bad spot to a better one. They didn’t buy it. In a recent referendum on the new construction more than 70% voted to stop it. The current governor, the former governor and a majority of the prefecture’ s elected officials have used every legal means at their disposal to try to stop that base from being built. Elderly villagers laid their bodies down in front of enormous earth moving vehicles to slow the construction down.

One hope for the people of Okinawa is for the US Congress to acknowledge their basic human right to have a say in the matter and pull the plug.  Another is for President Trump to sit down with Okinawa’s Governor Denny Tamaki and cut his own deal.  Tamaki may be open to considering the financial compensation Trump wants in exchange for stopping the construction of a new base more than 70% of his constituents don’t want.

China’s Counterproductive Response on New START

May 6th, 2019: The Chinese Foreign Ministry dismisses the possibility of entering into strategic arms limitation talks with the United States and Russia

Last month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Trump administration wanted China to participate in discussions on extending the New START Treaty, which places limits on the size of the nuclear arsenals of the countries who sign it. The current treaty, which expires in 2020, is a bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia. Pompeo said the administration wants to broaden participation in the treaty to include China.

When asked at a recent press conference, a spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said his government “will not participate in any negotiation for a trilateral nuclear disarmament agreement.” That’s unfortunate. It’s also counterproductive. China lost an opportunity to educate Americans, and the rest of the world, about its comparatively reserved nuclear weapons policies. It lost an opportunity to be an international leader on nuclear disarmament and to achieve numerical parity with the United States and Russia. And, if the ministry’s own assumptions about the disingenuous motives of Trump administration officials are correct, it may have helped Trump pin the blame for failed negotiations between Russia and the United States on China.

Silence is Acquiescence

Most Americans don’t think about nuclear weapons very much. They don’t know how many weapons each nation has or understand the policies governing their use. So when Trump administration officials claim the United States lags far behind China in modernizing its nuclear arsenal most Americans are not inclined to doubt. Without public inquiry or objection, those claims will form the basis of Congressional decisions to approve spending trillions to modernize the US nuclear arsenal so America can catch up with China.

In fact, China’s nuclear arsenal is smaller than the US nuclear arsenal was in 1950. None of its nuclear weapons are kept on high alert. Its nuclear-armed submarines never go on armed patrol. China is working diligently to improve the quality and increase the quantity of its nuclear forces, but at the present pace of those efforts, even if the United States does nothing, China’s nuclear forces will continue to lag far behind those of the United States for many decades.

Geng Shuang, the Chinese spokesperson who made the announcement, mentioned that China’s arsenal is “kept at the minimum level required by national security” and is “an order of magnitude” smaller than the US arsenal. But saying it once at a press conference in response to a question is a veritable whisper in the cacophony of information coming at US voters in this age of social media. Deciding to engage the United States in New START discussions would be surprising, make headlines, generate endless commentary and flood the United States with better information on China’s nuclear forces.

The Chinese government constantly complains about American attempts to hype “the China threat” to the United States. Yet presented with a golden opportunity to dispel at least some of the hype, all the ministry could muster was a few diffident lines at a press conference. All that Congress and the American public will hear is that “China said no.”

Chairman Xi Fails to Lead

That China said “no” to nuclear disarmament negotiations is most likely all the rest of the world will hear and remember as well.

China may be worried that accepting Pompeo’s offer could trap China in a difficult situation. That’s understandable, especially given the relatively strict verification requirements in the existing treaty. But Pompeo may have presented the current Chinese leader with a diplomatic no-lose scenario if he said yes. Had Chairman Xi agreed to engage the United States on the possibility of Chinese participation in New START it would have put the onus on President Trump to respond. Xi could have welcomed the opportunity to have the United States reduce its nuclear forces to a level where China could be an equal party to the treaty. If Trump demurred he would take the blame for China’s absence from negotiations. If Trump said yes the United States would have to reduce the size of its nuclear forces by an order of magnitude. Either way Xi wins. The only way he could lose was to say no, yet that’s what he did.

Geng Shuang told the press, “China stands consistently for the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” Claims like this from all the nuclear weapons states ring hollow to the vastly greater number of non-nuclear weapons states, which have been waiting for 49 years for China, the United States, Great Britain, France and Russia to honor their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to “pursue negotiations in good faith … on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Pompeo’s offer to engage the United States on deep nuclear reductions was a test, intended or not, of China’s commitment to the NPT. Xi failed that test.

The non-nuclear weapons states have good reason to doubt China’s sincerity. Like the United States, China signed but did not ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). However inexcusable, the United States Senate rejected ratification shortly after the US signed the treaty in 1996 and a majority of senators remain opposed. China didn’t have that problem then, and it’s even less of a problem under Xi’s leadership. He could direct China’s National People’s Congress to ratify it tomorrow. He could also be more proactive in the United Nations Conference on Disarmament (UNCD). China has a highly capable community of arms control experts, many with considerable scientific and technical expertise, who can support a more proactive Chinese stance on nuclear disarmament. Yet Xi seems happy to let things lie. His failure to respond positively to the opening Pompeo presented is a sign that China is content with a status quo where the world remains divided into nuclear haves and have-nots.

This was also a test of Xi’s common sense. Any imaginable negotiating scenario that resulted in a significant reduction of US nuclear forces is in China’s national security interest. A smaller US nuclear force makes it less likely the United States might try to launch a disarming nuclear first strike against China’s small nuclear force – the very scenario China’s nuclear modernization efforts are supposedly intended to address. Engaging in nuclear arms control negotiations with an adversary you believe may not be acting in earnest is a risk, but it’s one a China committed to “the comprehensive prohibition and complete elimination of nuclear weapons” should be willing to take.

Sucker Punched

Finally, Geng Shuang said Pompeo’s offer was an “attempt to make an issue out of China on arms control.” What he meant was that the offer to negotiate wasn’t sincere. He may be right. There’s no evidence the United States approached China about New START either before or after Pompeo’s testimony, just like there’s no evidence the US spoke with China about joining the INF treaty. China’s assumption, and the assumption of most of my colleagues in the Chinese and US arms control communities, is that the Trump administration is setting China up to take the blame for the eventual collapse of the New START agreement, just like it did with the INF Treaty.

Arms control proponents in the United States are urging the Trump administration to go forward without including China because “to include limits on China would be complicated and take many years.” They also say that getting China to agree to New START’s strict verification measures “will require long periods of talks and confidence building measures.” But like the Foreign Ministry’s complaint about making China the issue,  these statements only encourage average Americans and their elective representatives to agree that China is a problem, that China isn’t ready or willing to disarm, so why should the United States. If Pompeo’s offer really was made in bad faith, the Chinese Foreign Ministry, and the US arms control advocates urging Trump to forget about China, couldn’t have found better ways to help him get away with it.  

NNSA’s FY20 Budget Request: Full Speed Ahead on Weapons Development and Production

In March the Department of Energy released its FY20 budget request for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for developing, producing and maintaining US nuclear warheads and bombs.

(Source: Flickr)

The request outlines NNSA’s planned activities through FY24, including for weapons that have been part of the plan since the Obama administration such as:

  • The life extension program (LEP) for the W80-4 warhead, which will be used with the new air-launched cruise missile—the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO)
  • Producing W87-1 warheads to replace the W78 warheads on US land-based missiles

The costs of these programs are growing as they move forward with development and, as expected, have led to a substantial increase in the FY20 budget request for Weapons Activities. This category jumped almost 12%, to $12.4 billion, from $11.1 billion in FY19.

Although the Trump administration plans to add two new warheads to the arsenal—the W76-2 “low-yield” Trident warhead and an as-yet unnamed warhead for a planned new sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM)—their impact on the FY20 budget is very small. This is because the W76-2, which is nearly complete, requires only a relatively minor modification to existing W76 warheads, and the SLCM is still in the earliest stage of development, receiving only minimal funding for studies.

Big increase: W80-4 warhead for new air-launched cruise missile

The largest funding increase is for the life extension program for the W80-4 warhead that will be used with the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO), which is planned to replace the current air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). The NNSA has requested almost $900 million for the program in FY20—more than $240 million over last year’s funding of $655 million, a jump of more than 35 percent. This is on top of another large increase last year to speed the program up so that it was keeping pace with the schedule for the LRSO.

As we have previously detailed, the LRSO is an unnecessary and destabilizing weapon. It is expected to be significantly more capable than the existing ALCM, featuring enhanced accuracy, longer range, and greater speed; it will also be harder to detect. Like the W76-2 low-yield warhead discussed below, the supposed advantages of the LRSO lean more toward nuclear warfighting than deterrence.

Last year’s budget predicted that the NNSA would need only $714 million for the program in FY20. The program completed a required Weapon Design and Cost Report in December 2018 that reportedly provided data that led to the increase. In March, the Nuclear Weapons Council (a joint Department of Defense and Department of Energy group that oversees plans for nuclear weapons programs) approved the program to move into its next stage, Development Engineering. Costs for this program have increased substantially over time, and as it moves further along its development trajectory the budget will only continue to increase.

Another big increase: the W87-1 warhead for land-based missiles

Another recipient of substantially increased funds in the FY20 budget request is the replacement for the W78 warhead deployed on Minuteman III intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The planned replacement will be a modified version of the W87 warhead already deployed on ICBMs—dubbed the W87-1. Its FY20 budget comes in at $112 million—more than double last year’s funding of $53 million. This warhead is slated to be fielded on the “Ground-based Strategic Deterrent” missiles which are to replace the current Minuteman missiles beginning in 2029. The warhead was previously planned as the first of three interoperable warheads (IWs) to be used on both land- and submarine-based missiles.

The IW-1 warhead was intended to replace both the W78 and half of the Navy’s W88 warheads. But the program was not supported by the Navy and experts (including my colleague Lisbeth Gronlund) raised serious questions about its high cost, increased risk, and limited benefits, leading to its eventual death. The NNSA’s FY2019 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan, released last fall, finally dropped the IW designations altogether in favor of “W78 replacement warhead” (now the W87-1), “ballistic missile warhead Y” (BM-Y, formerly IW2), and “ballistic missile warhead Z” (BM-Z, formerly IW3).

Coming in under cap: Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition

Funding for Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition is capped at $56 million per year until FY21 due to provisions in the FY17 and FY18 National Defense Authorization Acts. This was a result of opposition by the Republican-led Congress to the Obama administration’s announcement at the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty review conference that it planned to accelerate weapons dismantlement, in part to help demonstrate US commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament. In its first year, the cap resulted in a cut of almost 20% to President Obama’s request, effectively undercutting the plan.

For FY20, the NNSA has requested $47.5 million for Weapons Dismantlement and Disposition, $8.5 million less than the $56 million the category received in FY18 and FY19. Last year’s budget request indicated that the NNSA planned to continue requesting the full amount through FY23, the last future year included. The NNSA says that the decrease this year is because of a “reduction in legacy component disposition and CSA activities.”

The FY20 budget request, like the FY19 budget request, also does not reiterate the goal of dismantling all weapons retired before FY09 by FY22, which was set out in previous budget documents. Dismantlement competes for space and personnel with weapons production programs, so it seems likely that adding on to and speeding up the production schedule will keep dismantlement as an also-ran for the upcoming crunch period for NNSA.

Delayed retirement: the B83 bomb

Also getting an increase over estimates in previous budgets is the B83 bomb which, with a yield of 1.2 megatons, is by far the most powerful weapon in the US arsenal. The B83 was previously scheduled to be retired after the new B61-12 entered service in the early 2020s, but the Trump administration has decided to keep it around for an undetermined period, confusingly characterized in some places in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) as “at least until there is sufficient confidence in the B61-12 gravity bomb that will be available in 2020” and in other places as “until a suitable replacement is identified.” This means that it requires more funding for upkeep and increased surveillance activity to ensure it will remain usable.

According to Charles Verdon, NNSA’s Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs, these measures will be sufficient to keep the B83 in the active stockpile for the next 5-7 years, but after that the bomb would need a full life extension program, and the NNSA does not yet have an estimate for how much that might cost. Chances are that the NNSA does not want to undertake such a program, given how many other life extension programs it already has on its plate.

It would also be costly and unnecessary. Recognition that the high yield of the B83 is not needed was part of the NNSA’s argument in favor of a major life extension program for the B61 bomb, which will produce a new variant, the B61-12. In response to questions from Congress about the need for the new bomb, when the B83 can already carry out some of the same missions for which it is designed, Air Force General Robert Kehler, at the time commander of US Strategic Command, characterized its “very high yield” as one of its “shortcomings.” The B61-12 will include a new guided tail kit that will significantly increase its accuracy, and more recent reports show that it will also have earth penetrating capability. These improvements will allow it to be used against a broader set of targets, even those which may previously have required higher yield.

New: Next ICBM Warhead, Sea-launched cruise missile

New in this year’s budget are the introduction of a line item for the “Next Strategic Missile Warhead Program” and funding for a study of President Trump’s proposed sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM).

The warhead labeled BM-Y in the most recent Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan has apparently now been updated to the Next Strategic Missile Warhead (or possibly the Next Navy Warhead, as it is given different labels on different pages of the budget request). The Next Strategic Missile Warhead would eventually replace the W87 warhead on the Air Force’s planned Ground Based Strategic Deterrent missiles. Previous plans called for this to be the second of three planned interoperable warheads, to be designated IW2. In those plans, IW2 would also have replaced the remaining half of the Navy’s W88 warheads. The NNSA has not requested any funding for the Next Strategic Missile Warhead program in FY20, but indicates that it will begin to request funding in FY23 to conduct feasibility studies.

The Trump administration’s 2018 Nuclear Posture Review called for the development of a new sea-launched cruise missile, after President Obama retired a previous version in 2010. The FY20 funding is for a study called an “analysis of alternatives,” one of the earliest steps in developing a new weapons program. It is unclear how much is being requested, but according to the Arms Control Association the number is, “as much as $12 million.”

Complete: The Life Extension Program for the W76 warhead

The NNSA’s budget request for the W76 LEP drops to zero in FY20, indicating that the program is now complete. The NNSA announced in January that it had completed the upgrade of all W76s to W76-1s in December of last year. The program began production of the life-extended warheads in 2008 to extend the life of the warheads by 20 years.

Nearly complete: The W76-2 warhead

The FY20 request includes $10 million for the W76-2, a variant of the 100-kiloton W76 warhead modified to have a lower yield of about 6.5 kilotons. The warhead, the most rapidly developing outcome of the Trump administration’s 2018 NPR, is intended to replace some of the existing W76 warheads and be carried on Trident missiles launched by US submarines.

The Trump administration claims that the United States needs this weapon to respond to what it believes are increased threats from Russia and others. But as we have detailed in our fact sheet on this program, this argument does not make sense. Despite what the Trump administration says, there is no “gap” in US deterrence capabilities– existing US nuclear weapons already cover a range of yields from 0.3 kiloton to 1.2 megatons. Moreover, the W76-2, like the LRSO, will add to US capabilities for nuclear warfighting, blurring the line between conventional and nuclear conflicts and increasing the chance that a nuclear weapon could be used.

The W76-2 program received $65 million in NNSA funding in FY19, plus another $23 million from the Department of Defense. The decrease in the FY20 request is because production of the modified warheads is scheduled to be completed by the end of FY19, leaving only minor close-out activities for FY20. The NNSA announced in late February that it had completed the first production unit of the W76-2 and was on track to complete the rest of the warheads and deliver them to the Navy by the end of FY19 in September. Thus, if Congress does not step in quickly, the United States will begin deploying a destabilizing new nuclear weapon in the very near future. Fortunately, Rep. Adam Smith, the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, has already announced he is “unalterably opposed” to the W76-2 and he will likely seek to end funding for the program and bar deployment of it. His effort has the support of more than 40 former senior officials who last year recommended that Congress cancel the program.

Donald Trump: Serious about Arms Control?

President Trump seems to understand a major lesson of the past 70 years of the nuclear age: Unconstrained arms races are dangerous and massively expensive.

The Washington Post reports that Trump “has ordered his administration to prepare a push for new arms-control agreements with Russia and China after bristling at the cost of a 21st-century nuclear arms race.” If one country builds more weapons to feel secure, this can cause other countries to feel less secure and lead them to build more weapons in response. This cycle is the classic arms race.

Trump seems to get it. In December he tweeted that he wants “a meaningful halt to what has become a major and uncontrollable Arms Race.”

Fortunately, the solution is known: verifiable arms control agreements. Rather than unconstrained action/reaction cycles, agreements increase transparency between countries, limit the growth of arsenals, and set up mechanisms to clarify ambiguities and possible violations.

And it works: The United States and Soviet Union learned this lesson in the 1970s and 1980s as those reaction cycles led them to collectively build more than 60,000 nuclear weapons. A series of arms control agreements have reduced those numbers today to about 1,700 deployed weapons on each side.

Gorbachev and Reagan signing the INF Treaty in 1987  (Source: National Archives)

What Trump Needs to Do

If Trump is serious about avoiding a nuclear arms race—and a nuclear war by extension—here is what he needs to do:

  • A clear first step is to extend the US-Russian New START Treaty, which is set to expire in February 2021 but can be extended for five years without new negotiations. Both countries have cut their nuclear arsenals to meet the treaty’s limits. The treaty has put in place an intrusive verification regime that the US military highly values. Extending this successful treaty will provide time to take next steps.
  • The administration says it wants to go beyond New START and limit other weapons. That makes sense. But the first step is for the United States not to pull out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which strictly limits weapons not covered by New START. After it was signed, the US and Soviet Union destroyed some 2,700 of these nuclear weapons. It is definitely “a bird in the hand” that is still useful as the United States and Russia work to address recent compliance issues.
  • Trump must understand that the US push for defenses against long-range missiles blocks progress on limiting those weapons. When it ratified the New START treaty, Russia said any future agreement must include limits on missile defenses. And when Putin announced several new nuclear weapons last year—including the drone nuclear submarine that the United States would like to stop—it was clear that these weapons are designed to defeat missile defenses

And keep in mind that the main US missile defense system has so far cost some $45 billion, yet continues to fail half of its tests. At the same time, it can be defeated by decoys and other countermeasures. The only thing it seems certain to stop is new arms control agreements. Trump must be serious about limits on defenses if he wants to limit offenses.

  • If Trump wants China to join an arms control treaty with the US and Russia he needs to be willing to think way outside the box. Both countries currently have more than 10 times as many nuclear warheads in their arsenals as does China. And China is concerned about a buildup of US missile defenses. Moreover, why would China agree to join if France and Britain, which have similarly sized arsenals, are not included? Finding incentives and a way to include China in a treaty will take some work.
  • Trump must also replace National Security Advisor John Bolton. Bolton has a long history of blocking arms control: He was behind US withdrawal from the INF Treaty, and George W. Bush’s pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, among others. He has been blamed for undermining recent negotiations with North Korea.

Is Trump Serious?

Gorbachev and Reagan (Source: National Archives)Time will tell if Trump is serious. This could be a ploy to assuage the public’s growing concerns about instability and nuclear war. He may talk a good arms control game while pushing for agreements that go beyond what Russia and China are prepared to sign up to in the current climate.

But if Trump, like Reagan, understands the dangers and wastefulness of unfettered arms races, there is a lot he can do. After all, when he says “Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous,” he’s almost right. The price tag is actually trillions of dollars.

Hopes for Nuclear Disarmament from Tokyo

April 23, 2019: UN Undersecretary General Izumi Nakamitsu discusses disarmament at the United Nations University in Tokyo.

The so-called “great powers” are not so great when it comes to nuclear disarmament. Forty-nine years ago they entered into a legally binding commitment, known as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), to “pursue negotiations in good faith … on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” It’s hard to argue, though the great powers try to do so, that spending trillions to maintain and modernize their nuclear arsenals is an act of good faith.

Optimism in the face of that kind of hypocrisy can be hard to find, but it made an appearance this week on the campus of the United Nations University in Tokyo. Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, the UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, spoke convincingly to a conference room packed with concerned academics, students and activists about improving prospects for progress in nuclear disarmament.

International Norms Still Matter

One prerequisite for progress is a high level of commitment among UN member states to international law and organization. Nakamitsu said that although politicians from the United States and other nations are mobilizing nationalist resentments against the accelerating social and economic developments knitting the planet together, public officials in the rest of the world are responding with “a renewed commitment to multilateralism.” She emphasized, repeatedly, that the United Nations cannot force the nuclear weapons states to disarm. But it can help create the conditions for progress.

An important bellwether is the NPT itself.  The third meeting of the preparatory committee for the NPT review conference in 2020 is being held in New York. In advance of the meeting even President Trump, who revels in undermining the United Nations, is talking about the need for nuclear arms control. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo opened the door to deep nuclear cuts by suggesting that the United States and Russia should join China, which has a small nuclear arsenal of several hundred weapons that it keeps off alert, in the negotiation of a new strategic arms limitation treaty. Despite these public statements–and time will tell if they are sincere–the Trump administration is asking Congress for new funds to rapidly modernize and expand the US nuclear arsenal. It also refused to endorse President Reagan’s statement that “A nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.” But even Trump and his assemblage of nuclear hawks feel the need to at least pretend, at a moment when the world is gathering to sure up the NPT, that international nuclear arms control is a solemn US obligation.

Looking Forward

Nakamitsu was enthusiastic about the new UN Agenda for Disarmament launched by UN Secretary General António Guterres last May. She reminded her audience the very first UN General Assembly resolution established the international community’s right and responsibility to “enquire into” and “make recommendations” that would lead to “the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons.” She said one of the most exciting initiatives on the agenda is to engage new constituencies that can support the United Nations in the fulfillment of that mandate.

The most consequential may be the global scientific community, which is much larger, more diverse and more capable than it was in 1946. Nakamitsu spends a lot of time with scientific groups all over the world and notes that many scientists never thought about nuclear disarmament, much less how they might participate in the process. At first blush that may seem discouraging but it is actually a cause for hope. The global discussion of nuclear disarmament is currently dominated by a small clique of experts closely associated with the nuclear weapons states. Expanding that discussion to include more diverse and scientifically competent voices is a task ideally suited for the United Nations. Nakamitsu’s outreach is already leading to some interesting conversations.

For example, she recalled a meeting with IT engineers at a major global corporation where she sought advice on the potential impact of artificial intelligence on nuclear weapons command and control systems. The discussion started with a recitation of familiar concerns about machines deciding to launch nuclear weapons with no human oversight. But it ended with the speculation that it might be possible to encode all modern weapons systems with an algorithm that allowed the machines to understand, interpret and apply international humanitarian law. As I sat there listening to the undersecretary I imagined a pilot about to launch a missile strike getting a warning stating, “System analytics have determined your action will result in the commission of a war crime. This incident will be recorded and filed with the United Nations War Crimes Commission.”

This is just one of the many thought-provoking encounters Nakamitsu experienced after the new agenda was launched. She believes they’re creating greater global interest in advancing nuclear disarmament.

Power to the People

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the undersecretary emphasized history suggests greater public engagement forces national decision-makers to pursue international nuclear arms control. She recalled the role of the Japanese women who helped ignite the worldwide public campaign that led to the signing of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT), which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, outer space and under water.

The UN’s new disarmament agenda also calls for the unprecedented use of the offices and resources of the United Nations to reach out to women and other constituencies sidelined by the male-dominated conversations about nuclear disarmament that occur between officials and experts from the nuclear weapons states. Nakamitsu related her own efforts to engage much younger audiences, and patiently fielded questions from the students and educators who attended her presentation. She reminded the older members of the audience, like me, that while complete and total nuclear disbarment is unlikely to occur in our lifetimes, the hope for our future lies in engaging young people and arming them with the information they need to carry on the struggle.

Pompeo Opens the Door to Deep US Nuclear Cuts (Or Large Chinese Increases)

April 10, 2019: Oregon’s Senator Jeff Merkley questions Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about new nuclear arms control negotiations with China.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee the Trump administration wants China to join negotiations on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The treaty, which caps the number of deployed US and Russian nuclear warheads at 1550 each, is scheduled to expire in 2021.

China has a no first use policy and is believed to store its warheads separately from its missiles. Under the definition of the current treaty, China would therefore have zero deployed weapons.

It is difficult to believe Pompeo seriously considered the implications of Chinese participation in the New START treaty. If China were to become a party to the agreement, it would expect to be treated as an equal. There would need to be common limits on the number of warheads and launchers each country would be permitted to retain and deploy.

Making China subject to the same restrictions as the United States and Russia would present both countries with a very difficult choice. They would have to decide whether to reduce their numbers of deployed warheads to zero or to allow China to engage in a massive nuclear build up to match US and Russian numbers. They could agree to change the terms of the treaty to include both deployed and stored warheads, which would capture China’s warheads, but then it would also capture the additional 2,000-3,000 warheads that both the United States and Russia have in storage. US and Russian negotiators would then need to find a way to eliminate an even larger disparity in numbers between their countries and China.

A Quick Look at Those Numbers

China currently has a few hundred nuclear warheads and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make several hundred more. The United States has 4,000 nuclear warheads (active and reserve) and enough weapons-grade plutonium to make approximately 5,000 more. Current US estimates indicate China can deliver about 140 of those nuclear warheads to targets in the United States with its approximately 80 ground-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and 60 submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). The United States could deliver as many as 800 nuclear warheads on its 400 ICBMs and a maximum of 1,920 warheads on its 240 SLBMs. The US arsenal also currently includes 452 nuclear gravity bombs and 528 nuclear-armed cruise missiles that are delivered by aircraft. China does not currently deploy any of its nuclear weapons on aircraft.

The current New START agreement caps the total of US and Russian deployed ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers equipped to carry nuclear weapons at 700. Assuming new negotiations produced a 50% reduction in those numbers—a result many nuclear arms control experts would justifiably herald as a stunning success for the Trump administration—China would be allowed to add several hundred ICBMs and SLBMs to its current arsenal

A significantly larger Chinese nuclear arsenal doesn’t sound like a very good outcome for the United States or its Asian allies.

So What was Pompeo Thinking?

One possibility is that the secretary thinks China’s nuclear arsenal is much larger than it actually is, perhaps due to misinformation circulated in Washington a few years ago.

Not long after Pompeo won his seat in Congress an adjunct professor at Georgetown University submitted a Pentagon-funded report suggesting China had approximately 3,000 nuclear weapons buried in a network of tunnels. The study received a favorable review from the Washington Post and gained some currency on Capitol Hill.

But the study was very poorly done. Its conclusions were based on spurious Chinese sources found by Georgetown undergraduate students using keyword searches of public Chinese websites. Their professor, Phillip Karber, misrepresented a collection of general questions about China’s nuclear arsenal posted on personal Chinese blogs as a secret Chinese military document stating China’s nuclear arsenal was ten times larger than current US estimates.

Peter Navarro, one of the leading voices on China within the Trump administration, cited Karber’s numbers in one of his books. He also claimed China’s leaders were so confident in the success of their nuclear modernization program that they were willing to start a nuclear war, a claim that appears to have influenced the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, which suggests China would resort to nuclear first use if it were losing a conventional war with the United States. It’s possible Pompeo’s thinking has been influenced by this kind of talk in the White House.

The next time Secretary Pompeo appears before Congress, someone should ask for his views on the size of China’s nuclear arsenal and his assessment of the Chinese policies guiding how and when it might be used.

Another possibility is that the secretary is using the requirement of Chinese participation to try to diminish expectations for an extension of the New START treaty. Lack of Chinese inclusion was one of the principal reasons cited by the Trump administration in its decision to withdraw from the INF treaty. There is no indication Pompeo approached China about joining the INF treaty or participating in negotiations on the New START treaty. Perhaps that’s because he assumes China isn’t interested.

China’s Response

China consistently rejects multilateral arms control negotiations. It prefers international negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. So trilateral talks with Russia and the United States are unlikely. However, Chinese arms control experts often point out that China would be willing to enter into multilateral nuclear arms control negotiations when the United States and Russia reduce their numbers to levels approximately the same as the rest of the nuclear weapons states, which hover in the middle hundreds rather than in the thousands.

Chinese President Xi Jinping should seize the opportunity presented by Pompeo’s remarks to engage the United States on Chinese participation in New START talks that would result in dramatically lower limits on the size of US and Russian nuclear forces. Chinese arms control experts seem prepared to tackle the difficult technical issues involved in the verification of an agreement on deep nuclear cuts. They’ve been discussing verification issues at international arms control conferences ever since China signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1996.

Secretary Pompeo may not have intended to open the door to substantial nuclear reductions, but Xi would be remiss if he let this opportunity slip by without at least making an effort to further the discussion.

Nuclear Weapons in the Reiwa Era

Japan will soon have a new emperor and a new dynastic name to mark the traditional Japanese calender: Reiwa (令和). Interminable commentary on the significance of the name is just beginning, but in the end it will be defined not by words but by deeds. One of the most important acts the Japanese people may be compelled to take as the new era begins is to decide whether to allow their government to introduce US nuclear weapons into Japan. They may have to choose between continuing to honor the legacy of Hiroshima and the warnings of the hibakusha or abandoning Japan’s longstanding role as a leading voice for peace and nuclear disarmament.

Prime Minister Abe and the foreign policy elite of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) are pushing the United States to increase the role of US nuclear weapons in Asia. They told US officials they want to alter Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles to permit the introduction of US nuclear weapons into Japan. They also want to revise Article 9 of Japan’s post-war constitution, in which the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a mean of settling international disputes.” The Abe government’s desire to re-write the constitution and re-arm Japan is well known and hotly debated. But its efforts to bring US nuclear weapons into Japan are a closely guarded secret, known only to a small group of officials in Japan’s foreign policy establishment.

UCS obtained a document that contains a detailed description of the Japanese foreign ministry’s requirements for US nuclear weapons. Multiple conversations with the Japanese official who presented this document to his US counterparts not only confirmed its content, they also revealed this small group of hawkish officials wants to train Japanese military personnel to deliver US nuclear weapons. They would even like the United States to grant Japanese leaders the authority to decide when to use them. Japanese officials refer to this arrangement as “nuclear sharing.”

This information is not being kept from the Japanese people for security reasons. The responsible officials believe it is important for China to know Japan has the authority to make such a decision and the capability to carry it out. Preparations to make “nuclear sharing” a reality are being kept secret because these officials are afraid the Japanese public would oppose it. Their covert nuclear weapons wish list blatantly violates both the letter and the spirit of Japan’s constitution and the Three Non-Nuclear Principles.

Public opinion polls indicate many Japanese people would like to make the use or threat to use nuclear weapons illegal, which is the purpose of the recently adopted UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW). A large majority of their elected representatives, even within Abe’s ruling LDP, want to uphold Japan’s Three Non-Nuclear Principles, which forbid “nuclear sharing.” Many Japanese people take pride in the belief that their country plays a leading role in advancing nuclear disarmament.

The gap between the public’s aspirations and the private machinations of its current leaders is difficult to reconcile.

Prime Minister Abe, like US President Trump, governs his country with a mix of nationalism and authoritarianism. His political opponents seem incapable of mounting a serious challenge to his leadership or his policies. But the absence of effective opposition is not an indication of popular support. Abe’s approval rating is not that much better than Trump’s. And like the current US president, he holds on to power with a dedicated minority of loyalists, disingenuous manipulation of the mass media and the resignation of a dispirited majority who see no compelling alternative.

Abe appears to have injected his nationalist agenda into the selection of the name for the new era. Press reports highlight that Reiwa (令和) is the first Japanese dynastic name not taken from the Chinese classics. The collection of Japanese poetry that inspired Abe’s selection was popular among the military officers of Imperial Japan who led their nation into World War II. Critics panned Reiwa as a cold expression of Abe’s authoritarian tendencies, but it seemed to be well-received and gave an immediate lift to the popularity of a man on track to become the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history.

Abe told the press Reiwa suggests a period when “culture is born and nurtured as the people’s hearts are beautifully drawn together.” His cabinet secretary told the world that Reiwa should be translated into English as “beautiful harmony.” So it may be that the initial appeal of the new name is more in line with the widespread public support for Japan’s pacifist constitution and the spirit of international cooperation than with Abe’s atavistic appeals to the chauvinist ambitions that led to Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima.

Only time will tell. Japanese attitudes towards nuclear weapons may be the most important window into the ultimate meaning of Reiwa. Making sure the Japanese people know what their government is saying and doing about nuclear weapons may be the best way to ensure that window is clear.

Also: today we’re releasing a short documentary that we filmed in Hiroshima last year. It covers some of the issues around the Japanese Foreign Ministry and US nuclear weapons, as well as firsthand accounts of the bombing.

There are Faster, Cheaper, Safer and More Reliable Alternatives to the Energy Department’s Proposed Multibillion Dollar Test Reactor

Department of Energy (DOE) Secretary Rick Perry recently announced the launch of the Versatile Test Reactor (VTR) project, flagging it as one of the department’s top priorities. The project, which would be the first new DOE test reactor in decades, would differ from the DOE’s operating test reactors because it would be cooled by liquid sodium instead of water, enabling it to produce large numbers of “fast” neutrons. The DOE says that such a facility is needed to develop new reactors that use fast neutrons to generate electricity. US nuclear plants today are light-water reactors, which use slow (“thermal”) neutrons.

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) questions the need for a dedicated fast neutron test reactor and, more generally, has serious concerns about fast reactor safety and security, detailed in a critique it released last year. Fast reactors pose nuclear proliferation and terrorism risks in part because they commonly use fuels containing plutonium, a nuclear weapon-usable material. Most fast reactor concepts also involve reprocessing of their spent fuel, which separates plutonium in a form that is vulnerable to theft.

Perry reported that the DOE has determined the “mission need” for the reactor, the first milestone for any new large department project, but the mission-need statement fails to make the case that the VTR is needed for fast-reactor development. Regardless, the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act, signed into law in September 2018, directed the department to build the VTR by the end of 2025. For is part, the department does not believe it can be completed before the end of 2026.

A Hefty Price Tag

Missing from Secretary Perry’s February 28 announcement was any estimate of the cost. In response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, UCS has learned that a “rough order-of-magnitude” estimate for the VTR’s construction and startup is $3.9 billion to $6.0 billion. To build the reactor over the next seven years would require the DOE to spend, on average, $550 million to $850 million annually, which is comparable to the department’s total fiscal year 2019 budget for nuclear technology development of approximately $740 million. The DOE has requested $100 million for the project (which it now refers to as the Versatile Advanced Test Reactor) in fiscal year 2020.

Cheaper, Faster Alternatives

The FOIA documents also reveal that the DOE’s determination of mission need misquotes its own 2017 user needs assessment to justify the new test reactor. In fact, there are ways to simulate the range of neutron speeds typical of a fast reactor in an already existing test reactor, such as the Advanced Test Reactor at Idaho National Laboratory or the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This could be accomplished by using neutron filters and possibly a different type of fuel. Going that route would be significantly cheaper: A 2009 DOE assessment suggests that this approach could achieve the minimum requirements necessary and would cost some $100 million to develop (in 2019 dollars), considerably less than the VTR project’s projected price tag.

Equally important, using one of the two currently operating test reactors could likely provide developers with fast neutrons more quickly  than the VTR project. The proposed test reactor would not be operational before the end of 2026, according to DOE’s proposed schedule, which it describes as “aggressive.” A recent DOE study estimated that it would take about 10 to 13 years for such a reactor to begin operation. Moreover, after the VTR startup, it would need to operate for some time—perhaps a few years—before it could be reliably used for testing, assuming there will be at least a few unforeseen problems. Thus it could be well over a decade before the VTR would become available. In contrast, the DOE estimated it would take seven years for the alternative system to become available at an operating test reactor.

The VTR mission-need statement also exaggerates the technical capabilities needed by the reactor developers who would use a fast test reactor. One of the main objectives of a test reactor is to bombard fuels and other materials with neutrons to study how they withstand radiation damage. This damage can be measured by a unit called “displacements per atom”—that is, the number of times each atom in a material sample is affected by a neutron. The more displacements per atom that a test reactor can provide per year, the faster a given test can be completed. The mission-need statement claims that reactor developers need a facility that can achieve at least 30 displacements per atom per year, although the reference it cites, a 2017 user needs assessment, only calls for a minimum of 20.

This difference is significant because researchers have shown that using the cheaper filtering approach in the High Flux Isotope Reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory could provide about 20 displacements per atom annually, so that the higher rate provided by a new reactor would not be needed. The mission need statement did not assess whether the modest additional capability that the VTR could provide—that is, 30 instead of 20—would be worth the substantial additional cost. If a reactor developer wanted to test a fuel sample up to 200 displacements, it would take 6.7 years in the VTR at a rate of 30 per year, compared to 10 years at the High Flux Isotope Reactor at a rate of 20 per year. But given that it might take more than a decade for the VTR to become available, it is far from clear it would help developers to achieve their goal any sooner than the alternative approach, which could be available in seven years.

A Better Test Reactor

Perhaps the clearest statement casting doubt on the need for the VTR was made by Westinghouse, one of the potential commercial users of fast reactor technology that the DOE surveyed in its user needs assessment. The originator of the pressurized light-water reactor (LWR), Westinghouse is now interested in developing a liquid lead-cooled fast reactor. However, in its response to the DOE survey, it states that any new test reactor should include capabilities for light-water reactor testing because “LWR technology will continue to be the backbone of nuclear energy for decades to come.”

UCS agrees with that statement. If the United States needs a new test reactor—and it may soon, given existing test reactors are many decades old—it would make more sense to build a new thermal neutron test reactor with the capability of generating fast neutrons if necessary, not the other way around. The technology is well-established, and the commercial need for a source of thermal neutrons is far more likely than for fast ones.