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Nuclear Policy » Article / Commentary

Kyl's Nuclear Non-Starter

November 19, 2010 ·

Republicans see shelving New START as a serious foreign policy blow that will further weaken Obama's presidency.

Senator John Kyl (R-AZ), the Republican point-man for nuclear arms policy in the Senate, has tossed cold water on the ratification of the New START nuclear weapons pact with Russia this year.

After months of negotiations and concessions from the Obama administration, without warning Kyl announced on Nov. 17 that, “given the combination of other work Congress must do and the complex and unresolved issues related to START and modernization” there just wouldn't be enough time to ratify the treaty during the lame duck session.

Republicans see this as a serious foreign policy blow that will further weaken Obama's presidency. Postponing the vote on the latest Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty until the Senate includes more hostile Republicans like Rand Paul of Kentucky and Marco Rubio of Florida, could be, as a nuclear disarmament lobbyist told me “the end to nuclear arms control, as we know it, for a long time.”

To appease Kyl, the White House added $624 million this year for nuclear weapons in the Energy department’s budget, and promised to add $4.1 billion more next year to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex.

This means an annual spending increase of 121 percent for a program to maintain an oversized Cold War nuclear arsenal with 400 times the destructive power of all bombs and explosives used during World War II. As historian, Lawrence S. Winnet recently pointed out, “the U.S. government's desire for nuclear weapons far outruns its need for them -- even by the logic of nuclear deterrence.”

Down Payment

But for Kyl and other Senate Republicans, such as Bob Corker (R-TN), this is just a down payment. They contend that the National Nuclear Security Agency within Department of Energy will need more than $180 billion to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, ensure the existing bombs will work, and most importantly to pave the way for the design and production of a new generation of nuclear weapons.

While Kyl’s announcement blindsided the Obama administration, his way of doing business comes as no surprise. In 1999, Kyl led the successful opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, after prolonged negotiations with the Clinton administration.

Kyl’s ideological view of the role of nuclear weapons runs deep, going back to his tenure in the House where he served on the Armed Services Committee at the end of the Cold War. By 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty was ratified, cutting the combined number of deployed weapons to 6,000 over the next ten years. Perhaps most traumatic for the hardliners were the decisions by President George H.W. Bush in 1991 to unilaterally reduce some 3,600 tactical nuclear weapons, put an end to new nuclear weapons production and to downsize of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex by 70 percent. This was followed by Bush and Yeltsin signing START II in January 1993, although it was never implemented.

By 1994, Kyl had won a. Senate seat. He rose to be the leading challenger helping to grind the Clinton administration's nuclear arms control efforts to a halt.

Kyl’s view of American military policy mirrors the position of hard-line neoconservatives who won't let go of their Cold War precepts. They see the primary way for the U.S. to be a world leader is if the nation bristles with nuclear weapons, and advanced missile defenses, as a hedge against Russia and rogue nations. And so in the clamor to reduce the deficit, Kyl and his allies are demanding that the U.S. borrow tens of billions of dollars from China, one of our prime nuclear targets, to maintain a grossly oversized nuclear arsenal and to restore the nuclear weapons production complex to make even more bombs. In a speech Kyle made in 2000, which previewed the incoming George W. Bush administration's nuclear weapons policy, he said:

“Honorable nations do not need treaty limits to do the right thing. Rogue states will ignore legal requirements when it suits their interests. We ignore this harsh reality at our own peril…Until the world community demonstrates that reliance on treaties is warranted, I believe the U.S. Senate will prefer to rely on U.S. capabilities and strengthening ties to allies to meet common threats, including more cooperation in enforcing non-proliferation agreements.”

Since then Kyl has spearheaded an effort in the Congress for the development a new generation of nuclear weapons known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Kyl has also carried the banner for missile defense. He views Russia and “rogue” states as a major threat that can only be stemmed with unilateral actions, unimpeded by agreements. In the spring of this year, Kyl told an audience at the National Defense University that the Obama administration “tied one hand behind our back on missile defense...Personally, I’m not sure the treaty is worth what we give up.”

Read the Treaty

Kyl either hasn't read the treaty or has chosen to ignore specific language which explicitly states:

“Each Party shall not convert and shall not use ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] launchers and SLBM [submarine-launched ballistic missile] launchers for placement of missile defense interceptors therein. Each Party further shall not convert and shall not use launchers of missile defense interceptors for placement of ICBMs and SLBMs therein. This provision shall not apply to ICBM launchers that were converted prior to signature of this Treaty for placement of missile defense interceptors therein.”

While he's seeking to torpedo New START, Kyl is turning a blind eye to the possible downsides of another agreement with Russia involving the “peaceful atom.” On May 10, Obama resubmitted to Congress an agreement for peaceful nuclear cooperation with the Russian Federation. The "123 agreement" -- named after a provision of the 1954 Atomic Energy Act -- would establish a 30-year framework for nuclear commerce between the former Cold War enemies. Unless the Congress enacts a resolution disapproving this agreement, it will take effect shortly before the lame duck session ends.

Meanwhile, the fact that Russian nuclear institutions are sharing technology and knowledge with Iran is a continuing concern. In 2006, the White House ignored broader U.S. government concern about Russian-Iranian missile cooperation in order to allow negotiations on the 123 agreement to proceed. During the March 2007 negotiations over this agreement, the U.S. Office of National Intelligence informed Congress that "individual Russian entities continue to provide assistance to Iran's ballistic missile programs." And in February of 2008, Iran launched a missile reportedly of Russian origin with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. In a reversal, last month Russia decided to terminate an $800 million contract with Iran to provide 300 missile launchers. If the Senate ditches New START, it’s hard to imagine that missile trade between Russia and Iran won’t resume.

The fact that Russian nuclear institutions' are sharing technology and knowledge with Iran is a continuing concern. In February, 2008 Iran launched a missile reportedly of Russian origin with an estimated range of 1,200 miles. In a reversal, last month Russia decided to terminate an $800 million contract with Iran to provide 300 missile launchers. If the START treaty is ditched by the Senate, it’s hard to imagine that missile trade between Russia and Iran won’t resume.

The 123 agreement with Russia was a cornerstone of the G.W. Bush administration's plan to reverse Washington's long-standing nonproliferation policy to discourage reprocessing and the use of plutonium as a nuclear fuel in international commerce. The agreement allows U.S.-origin spent fuel containing tens of tons of plutonium to be sent to Russia, which opens the door to reprocessing.

Russian Commercial Nuclear Industry

And with Russia currently reprocessing spent fuel from Ukraine and Bulgaria, it's easy to imagine the country reprocessing U.S.-origin spent fuel as well, a move that could earn Russia's nascent commercial nuclear industry billions of dollars. Kyl is silent about all this.

Kyl is silent about all of this.

As a cautionary tale, over the past decade, the U.S. spent a considerable amount of money and resources to secure nuclear material from a Soviet-era plutonium reactor in Kazakhstan -- the same, much larger reactor type that Russia would like to fund with proceeds from storing U.S. origin spent fuel.

Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to take Kyl at his word about there being no need for honorable nations to have treaty limits to do the right thing. For instance, the administration can emulate the George H.W. Bush administration and unilaterally cut the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The first place to begin is to reduce the large “war reserve” of nuclear weapons being kept in case of a “breakout,” even though Russia can barely afford to hold on to the thousands of weapons it already has.

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Federation of American Scientists the U.S. currently has some 9,200 warheads. For several years, experts have pointed out that our nuclear deterrent would not be impeded if the U.S. goes down to 500 to 1,000 warheads. The rate of dismantling several thousands of nuclear warheads already discarded by the military can be accelerated. However, dismantlement spending will be cut by 50 percent over the next five years in order to extend the life of thousands of nuclear weapons we don’t need. We can also use additional funds to find ways to better verify nuclear disarmament, and ensure that hundreds of tons of excess nuclear explosives no longer needed can’t be reused.

In the political clamor to reduce the deficit, it’s more than bizarre that Kyl and his allies are demanding we borrow tens of billions of dollars from China to maintain a grossly oversized nuclear arsenal while revving up the nuclear weapons production complex to make more bombs.

Nuclear weapons are a millstone around our necks. Kyl and his allies want to make sure it stays there for the next hundred years.

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