September 19, 2017

Lifeline for New Mexico: New international treaty bans nuclear weapons research and production

A mushroom-shaped cloud from a nuclear explosion on July 25, 1946. Photo taken from Bikini Island.

On Wednesday September 20 at the United Nations, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will open for signature.

For signatories, this treaty prohibits nuclear weapons altogether. Its explicit goal is a universal norm against all forms of participation in the nuclear weapons industry.

Designing, testing, producing, possessing, threatening with, deploying, and using nuclear weapons are to be banned. Crucially, assistance or encouragement in these illegal acts will also be banned, as will stationing of nuclear weapons, both of which impact U.S. nuclear alliances including NATO. Signatory states are required to enact administrative and penal sanctions against anyone involved with the nuclear weapons industry.

Greg Mello, executive director of Los Alamos Study Group

Obviously the U.S. and other nuclear weapon states will not sign this treaty. That does not mean it will be without effect. Large majorities in key European states support a ban. Parliaments and politicians will demand accession to the treaty, with a range of possible positive consequences. Earlier this month the German Foreign Minister agreed with opposition candidate Martin Schultz that U.S. nuclear weapons should be removed from Germany, a position supported by 85% of Germans polled.

In leaked correspondence and in prepared remarks, the Trump White House (like the Obama administration before it) has expressed almost panicked concern that the new treaty will damage U.S. alliances and undercut business deals – presumably arms sales and foreign contracts of U.S. nuclear contractors. The U.S. is the only country which explicitly uses a policy of “extended nuclear deterrence” to cement military alliances. It is these nuclear alliances that the treaty may affect most.

The ban treaty was negotiated against heavy opposition from the U.S. and other nuclear weapon states. In the end the text was approved by 122 countries. It is likely to enter into force next year and gradually gain adherents thereafter, a process which will keep U.S. nuclear “modernization” in the news around the world.

In all this, whither Santa Fe? While the “City Different” seeks a positive international reputation, the metro area hosts the world’s most lavishly-funded labs and production facilities for soon-to-be-outlawed nuclear weapons.

Our congressional delegation, following LANL, wants to re-start production of plutonium warhead cores (“pits”).  The new pits are “needed” solely for building a new kind of (untested and redundant) warhead for the Air Force and Navy. The Navy doesn’t want it. The Air Force has secretly admitted the same. Pits in existing weapons are all in fine condition and will remain so for decades. There are thousands of usable pits in reserve.

As a dubious reward for its enduring loyalty to LANL, the Santa Fe metro area has long hosted the state’s largest nuclear waste dump, visible from high ground anywhere from El Dorado to Truchas. “Area G” is now stuffed to the gills and might finally close at the end of this month. Then again, LANL may expand the site.

A plutonium factory for outlawed weapons and a nuclear waste dump. That’s a city “different,” all right.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Actually LANL seeks two unnecessary plutonium programs, pit production and the messy and dangerous processing of tons of surplus pits for disposal at WIPP, a project we believe will fail. Instead, surplus pits could be permanently demilitarized without opening them, followed by disposal at WIPP or in boreholes. This would be fully adequate, cheap, safe, and quick. We believe no other plan will succeed. LANL need not and should not be involved, no matter what plan DOE chooses to dispose of surplus pits.

Without the new warheads (that the rest of the world hates), the weapons labs would shrink. Los Alamos would not need to make pits, let alone build underground workshops to do so (estimated cost: $300,000/sq. ft.).

Given the Navy’s lack of interest in the new warhead, that leaves replacement of one of two silo-based ICBM warheads as the sole justification for the new warhead and therefore pit production. But why have those missiles? Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former STRATCOM Commander (also later Vice-Chair, Joint Chiefs) James Cartwright are among those who believe the U.S. would be more secure without any ICBMs. We agree.

By 2030 or so, US ICBMs will age out. Obama began (and Trump continues), a huge program to replace them. DoD estimates the new missiles, equipment, and software will cost between $85 and $150 billion, a fiscal disaster comparable to that incurred by Hurricane Harvey. Building missiles creates no productive infrastructure, mitigates no climate change, and creates few jobs.

That cost, wisely invested instead in leveraging more renewable energy, would go a long way toward ending coal burning in the U.S. while building non-exportable jobs, skills, and communities.

The new missiles are just part of the Obama-Trump plan to replace every single nuclear weapon system, reliably estimated to cost more than $1 trillion over 30 years. These are not “deployments” our children need.

The world is crying out for fresh priorities that will give children and our world a chance. Will our congressional delegation listen?

Greg Mello is executive director of the Los Alamos Study Group.