November 9, 2015

Costs Outweigh Benefits of Obama Plan to Replace Nuclear Stockpile, Study Finds

Refurbishing Current Stockpile Would Be Less Risky

Washington (November 9, 2015)—Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the Obama administration wants to lay the groundwork for the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which it rejected in 1999. Kerry believes U.S. ratification of the treaty, which bans nuclear explosive testing, would help prevent nuclear proliferation.

At the same time, however, the Obama administration plans to produce a suite of new nuclear warheads to replace several existing warhead types, which would undermine the CTBT, according to a study released today by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The report recommends that the United States instead continue with the current approach of refurbishing existing warheads to extend the life of the arsenal.

“The United States does not need to build a set of new nuclear warheads to maintain its arsenal,” said Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program and author of the study. “It would be technically—and politically—riskier than a straightforward program to refurbish existing warheads, and contradicts the Obama administration’s pledge to not develop new nuclear warheads.”

The UCS study examines the three main reasons the Department of Energy (DOE)—the agency responsible for maintaining the nuclear stockpile—gives for what it calls the “3+2” plan to build three types of ballistic missile-delivered and two types of aircraft-delivered weapons.

First, DOE argues the plan would allow the United States to significantly reduce the size of the “hedge” weapons stored in reserve to back up deployed nuclear forces in the event one type of warhead fails. However, according to DOE, the hedge would not be cut until the 3+2 plan is fully implemented, which would be at least 30 years from now.

More important, the UCS study shows that the United States could reduce the size of the hedge by roughly half now, from roughly 2,400 strategic weapons to 1,250, without deploying any new weapons. A hedge that size would be enough to back up the weapons the United States will deploy under the New START arms control agreement with Russia. Under the 3+2 plan, an additional 20 percent reduction would be possible—but 30 years from now.

Second, DOE argues that the 3+2 plan could save money. However, as the UCS study shows, the DOE’s own cost estimates show that the 3+2 plan could actually be more expensive than a simple refurbishment approach.

Third, the 3+2 plan’s new warhead types would include some improved safety and security features relative to the warheads they would replace. These would offer real, albeit limited, safety benefits.

The bigger issue is the 3+2 program would create unnecessary technical and political risks, the report found. The three new warheads would use nuclear components that have never been combined together in a test explosion, so deploying them could result in uncertainty about their reliability and prompt calls for resuming tests. If the United States resumed testing—which would violate the CTBT—it likely would spur testing by other nations, undercutting the U.S. goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

If the United States did not conduct nuclear tests but still developed new nuclear warheads, it also would undermine a key rationale for the CTBT. Other nations support the treaty in part because they believe it restricts the ability of existing nuclear states to develop new types of weapons.

“The United States would be far better off simply extending the life of the existing nuclear stockpile by refurbishing weapons as needed,” Gronlund said. “Building new warhead types would send the wrong message to the rest of the world, and could undermine U.S. efforts to stop other nations from acquiring nuclear weapons.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.