Robert Alvarez on How Hard It Is to Kill a Nuclear Weapon

Nuclear Dismantlement National Nuclear Security Administration

A nuclear weapon being dismantled. (Photo: The National Nuclear Security Administration)

The November/December issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists features an article by IPS nuclear policy senior scholar Robert Alvarez titled “The nuclear weapons dismantlement problem” (behind a paywall). You can be forgiven if you didn’t know it was a problem or even if you never actually wondered where nuclear weapons go to die.

It seems that the United States wants to look like it’s demonstrating a commitment to disarmament for next year’s review conference of the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). One way is by actually dismantling nuclear weapons which have been decommissioned. The United States, writes Alvarez, “has committed to dismantling all of the nuclear weapons retired from its nuclear stockpile before 2009. This level of dismantlement is projected to be achieved by 2022.”


The next day … the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) presented a very different picture of the US weapons dismantlement program to the US Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Committee … finding that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees dismantlement within the Energy Department, “does not track the actual date that dismantled weapons were retired’.” … Also, the GAO found, the NNSA “will not dismantle some weapons retired prior to fiscal year 2009, but will instead reinstate them to the stockpile.”

“Perhaps most troublesome,” writes Alvarez, “for the upcoming NPT review conference,” and, one might add, for the prospects of disarmament in our lifetime — well, not ours, but maybe in the lifetime of recent newborns —

… the GAO report noted that the Obama administration plans to refrain from dismantling weapons taken out of the active military forces under the arms control agreement known as New START until there is a ‘successful restoration of the NNSA weapons production infrastructure’.

Say what?

That restoration, it has been estimated, will cost tens of billions of dollars, and the schedule for completion of the program has now slipped into the early 2030s. In effect, the dismantlement of old nuclear weapons is being held hostage until the United States can establish several new and enormously costly facilities to make potentially large numbers of new nuclear weapons well into the 21st century and beyond—even though it is unclear how many new or refurbished nuclear weapons will actually be needed.

Y0u may ask: what’s the point of dismantling nuclear weapons as evidence you’re disarming when you’re only planning to build new ones? Wryly, Alvarez writes:

Whether the non-nuclear signatories of the NPT will see this US plan as progress toward the disarmament that nuclear nations promise under the treaty is, to say the least, an open question.