Vice President Biden: ‘The test ban treaty is as important as ever.’

Also published here.

It’s turning out to be a rather eventful week for nuclear weapons news, on both the domestic front and the international stage. For the sake of clarity, I’m going to deal with what’s going on in the US in this post, and address international issues separately.

First of all, the Obama administration is in the home stretch regarding the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR); the President’s national security team met yesterday to discuss the options they will present to the president, so he can make his final decision regarding “U.S. nuclear policy, strategy, capabilities and force posture” for at least half of the next decade. It is a legislatively mandated review, and I’ve written about it in several previous posts. Since the meeting was behind closed doors, we don’t know many specifics, but national security expert and Ploughshares Fund president Joe Cirincione has laid out what form he thinks the final NPR should take.

Secondly, today, the administration continued to prove its ability to multitask on nuclear weapons issues. Vice President Joe Biden gave a speech at the National Defense University in which he basically expanded on his Wall Street Journal op-ed piece from several weeks ago, in which he discussed the proposed budget for the nuclear weapons complex, and why it is important in the overall national security picture.

As Travis Sharp noted over at the Nukes of Hazard, Biden’s speech today took the middle ground regarding criticism of the new nuclear budget. Biden said:

Some friends in both parties may question aspects of our approach. Some in my own party may have trouble reconciling investments in our nuclear complex with a commitment to arms reduction. Some in the other party may worry we’re relinquishing capabilities that keep our country safe.

With both groups we respectfully disagree. As both the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, and as a strong proponent of non-proliferation, the United States has long embodied a stark but inevitable contradiction. The horror of nuclear conflict may make its occurrence unlikely, but the very existence of nuclear weapons leaves the human race ever at the brink of self-destruction, particularly if the weapons fall into the wrong hands.

Biden is pointing out what I emphasized when the nuclear weapons budget was announced: there’s a lot of spin, and some of it is either uninformed and/or simply disingenuous. What is paramount at this point — and this is what Biden’s goal with this speech seemed to be — is to lay the groundwork for the ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, or CTBT.

Since the arguments against CTBT ratification have included concerns that our nuclear arsenal is “too old” and “unreliable”, Biden talked about how the national laboratories play an important role in maintaining the nuclear stockpile so renewed nuclear testing will not be necessary (emphasis mine):

As we’ve said many times, the spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat facing our country.

That is why we are working both to stop their proliferation and eventually to eliminate them. Until that day comes, though, we will do everything necessary to maintain our arsenal.

At the vanguard of this effort, alongside our military, are our nuclear weapons laboratories, national treasures that deserve our support. Their invaluable contributions range from building the world’s fastest supercomputers, to developing cleaner fuels, to surveying the heavens with robotic telescopes.

But the labs are best known for the work they do to secure our country. Time and again, we have asked our labs to meet our most urgent strategic needs. And time and again, they have delivered.


During the Cold War, we tested nuclear weapons in our atmosphere, underwater and underground, to confirm that they worked before deploying them, and to evaluate more advanced concepts. But explosive testing damaged our health, disrupted our environment and set back our non-proliferation goals.

Eighteen years ago, President George H.W. Bush signed the nuclear testing moratorium enacted by Congress, which remains in place to this day.

Under the moratorium, our laboratories have maintained our arsenal through the Stockpile Stewardship Program without underground nuclear testing, using techniques that are as successful as they are cutting edge.

Today, the directors of our nuclear laboratories tell us they have a deeper understanding of our arsenal from Stockpile Stewardship than they ever had when testing was commonplace.

Let me repeat that – our labs know more about our arsenal today than when we used to explode our weapons on a regular basis. With our support, the labs can anticipate potential problems and reduce their impact on our arsenal.

Unfortunately, during the last decade, our nuclear complex and experts were neglected and underfunded.

Tight budgets forced more than 2,000 employees of Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore from their jobs between 2006 and 2008, including highly-skilled scientists and engineers.

And some of the facilities we use to handle uranium and plutonium date back to the days when the world’s great powers were led by Truman, Churchill, and Stalin. The signs of age and decay are becoming more apparent every day.

Because we recognized these dangers, in December, Secretary Chu and I met at the White House with the heads of the three nuclear weapons labs. They described the dangerous impact these budgetary pressures were having on their ability to manage our arsenal without testing. They say this situation is a threat to our security. President Obama and I agree.

That’s why earlier this month we announced a new budget that reverses the last decade’s dangerous decline.

Biden effectively delivers the punchline:

The last piece of the President’s agenda from Prague was the ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

A decade ago, we led this effort to negotiate this treaty in order to keep emerging nuclear states from perfecting their arsenals and to prevent our rivals from pursuing ever more advanced weapons.

We are confident that all reasonable concerns raised about the treaty back then – concerns about verification and the reliability of our own arsenal – have now been addressed. The test ban treaty is as important as ever.

This speech will most likely not make watchdog groups very happy, and it probably won’t satisfy proponents of new nuclear weapons and renewed nuclear testing, but it will likely sit well with scientists at the national labs, as well as pragmatists in the Senate who recognize the value of the Stockpile Stewardship Program. It also got a thumbs-up from the Arms Control Association’s Executive Director, Daryl Kimball, who makes the point that we really need to move on to the next step:

“The administration’s robust budget proposal for stockpile management should dispel any doubts that the nuclear weapons labs do not have the resources, tools, and expertise needed to maintain a reliable arsenal into the indefinite future and can do so without resuming nuclear testing or building newly-designed nuclear warheads,” Kimball said.

“Given the overwhelming evidence that the United States can maintain an effective nuclear arsenal without resuming testing or building new design warheads, it is time for the administration to step up its effort to work with the Senate to reconsider and approve the treaty,”

The nuclear nerds are doing their job at the labs. Now it’s time for the President and his national security team to address what looks to be a potentially epic battle in the Senate. We need to do better than we did in 1999, and actually ratify the CTBT this time.

This entry was posted in Nuclear Weapons and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>