Catalyst Winter 2016


The Obama Administration’s Bad Math on New Nuclear Weapons

By Lisbeth Gronlund

Photos: Sandia National Laboratories

The UCS report Bad Math on New Nuclear Weapons, released in November 2015,analyzes the Obama administration’s plan to extend the life of the U.S. nuclear stockpile. The Department of Energy (DOE)—the agency responsible for maintaining the stockpile—calls this the “3+2 plan” because it would build three new types of nuclear warheads to be launched on ballistic missiles and refurbish two types of nuclear weapons to be delivered by aircraft.

The report’s release came on the heels of Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that the Obama administration wants to pave the way for the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which it rejected in 1999. Kerry noted that U.S. ratification of the treaty, which bans nuclear explosive testing, would help prevent nuclear proliferation. We agree with that.

What we don’t agree with, however, is the administration’s plan for a suite of new nuclear warheads—which would undermine the treaty.

The three new warheads the DOE proposes would use nuclear components that have never been combined together in a test explosion, so deploying them could result in uncertainty about their reliability. That could prompt a future administration to resume explosive tests. If this were to happen—which would violate the treaty—it would likely spur testing by other nations, undercutting the U.S. goal of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.

Conversely, if the United States did not conduct nuclear tests but still developed and deployed new nuclear warheads, this would also erode support for the treaty. Other nations back the treaty in part because they believe it will restrict the ability of existing nuclear states to develop new types of weapons. Understanding this linkage, the administration has pledged not to develop new warhead types; it claims these new weapons will not really be “new.” But no amount of creative wordsmithing can paper over the problem.

The bottom line is that building new types of nuclear warheads would undermine the treaty and send the wrong message to the rest of the world. Plus, our analysis shows that the DOE’s own cost estimates indicate that the 3+2 plan could be more expensive than simply refurbishing existing weapons. The Union of Concerned Scientists is hard at work to make sure U.S. policy makers get our message.

Lisbeth Gronlund is the co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. Read more from Lisbeth on our blogs, The Equation and All Things Nuclear.