Building a new bomb factory could cause global aftershocks

  • The nuclear map


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Courting the Bomb."

Building a new factory for nuclear bomb triggers could spark another arms race, say opponents of the Department of Energy’s proposed “modern pit facility.” They argue that the facility would violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which went into effect in 1970 and now has 188 member nations. Though the treaty does not specifically bar construction of new weapons facilities, it requires that each of its signers “pursue negotiations in good faith” toward a treaty that would result in “general and complete” nuclear disarmament.

Christopher Paine of the Natural Resources Defense Council says the treaty’s meaning is indisputable. “If the U.S. builds a big, shiny new weapons factory, to many people that’s going to be a very clear-cut violation,” he says.

The Bush administration has been famously dismissive of Cold War-era treaties and agreements, however. Bush ditched the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty at the end of 2001, and has opposed ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty that President Clinton signed in 1996. In 2002, the United States and the Russian Federation signed the Moscow Treaty, but the treaty has been widely criticized for allowing the two countries to simply set aside weapons without destroying or dismantling them.

The Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, leaked to the press last year, maps out a major change in direction for the nation’s nuclear policy. Though the review acknowledges the arms reductions agreed to in the Moscow Treaty, it calls for a “revitalized nuclear complex.” It not only recommends building the modern pit facility, but also beefing up the Pantex weapons assembly-disassembly plant in Amarillo, Tex., preparing the Y-12 plant in Tennessee to build new fusion bombs, establishing weapons-design teams at the national laboratories and in Washington, D.C., and shortening the time required to plan nuclear tests in the Nevada desert.

Such recommendations embody the “counterproliferation” philosophy, an approach with powerful fans in the Bush administration. The term means different things to different people, but its adherents generally lean on brute military strength, not treaties, to stop other countries from acquiring or building more nuclear weapons. If the U.S. maintains its formidable nuclear arsenal, as Donald Rumsfeld explained to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 2002, rogue nations and terrorists should see “the futility of trying to sprint toward parity with us.”

While anti-nuclear activists acknowledge that the post-Sept. 11 world presents more complicated nuclear threats, they say these problems should be tackled with more muscular treaties, not the new projects and “usable” weapons recommended in the Nuclear Posture Review. “The U.S. already has nuclear superiority, and has that stopped these nations?” asks Don Hancock of the Southwest Research and Information Center in Albuquerque, N.M. “The administration is diagnosing the problem incorrectly, and their solution is going to make the problem worse.”

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