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Meeting New Century's Nuclear Challenges

Abraham on Meeting the New Century's Nuclear Challenges

Op-ed column by U.S. secretary of energy

(This column by Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham was published in the Washington Post July 21 and is in the public domain. No republication restrictions.)

Facing A New Nuclear Reality
By Spencer Abraham

The United States took another step toward eliminating the last vestiges of Cold War nuclear weapons production in May when the Department of Energy awarded contracts for construction of fossil fuel power plants to replace three Russian nuclear reactors. These reactors produce not only heat and electricity but also weapons-grade plutonium, enough to build 11/2 nuclear weapons a day. When the new U.S.-financed power plants are constructed and the nuclear reactors shut down, weapons-grade plutonium will no longer be produced in Russia.

President Bush is deeply committed to reducing the number of our nation's strategic nuclear warheads by two-thirds, and to preventing nuclear and radiological materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. This $466 million project is the latest advancement in an aggressive nonproliferation effort that has expanded from $800 million to $1.3 billion per year since the president took office. That's why I was perplexed, during congressional debate on the defense budget by the hysterics over the $21 million that would allow our scientists to contemplate advanced weapons concepts that could be used to protect against 21st-century threats. (In all, some $6.4 billion in the budget is for Department of Energy nuclear weapons programs.)

This funding should not have surprised anyone. It is the logical result of early Bush administration initiatives, endorsed by Congress, to conduct a thorough review of the nation's nuclear weapons policy. That review determined that the 21st-century national security environment differs greatly from that of the past half-century.

Deterrence during the Cold War led to a predictable -- if chilling -- balance of terror that has now largely vanished. Henceforth threats will likely evolve more quickly and less predictably. It is a situation that demands the restoration of our capacity to meet new challenges.

Recently the United States has begun making great strides to rebuild those capabilities. Now, for the first time in more than a decade, we are able to manufacture a plutonium pit -- also known as a trigger -- an essential nuclear warhead component. The lack of this proficiency has seriously constrained our ability to maintain our nuclear stockpile. We have also launched a much-needed facility modernization program. But maintaining our capability to address 21st-century challenges requires more.

Should our scientists decide we cannot certify the reliability of our nuclear stockpile, we must be capable of conducting a nuclear test in a much shorter time frame than the current three years. The capacity to test within 18 months is a critical capability every president must have. We must also give our weapons scientists the resources and authority to explore advanced weapons concepts, including research related to low-yield weapons. Funding constraints and confusing legal prohibitions have stifled most new thinking on these issues. This has, in turn, made us less capable of devising the best responses to emerging threats.

The challenges posed by rogue nations or terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction are strikingly different from that posed by the Soviet Union. Yet our best thinkers aren't being allowed to fully shift their focus from winning the Cold War to meeting new challenges.

Finally, we must move ahead to address one of the foremost military challenges identified in our recent review -- an enemy using hardened, deeply buried facilities to protect its weapons and other assets. We have just begun to explore whether modified existing warheads might be effective in attacking such targets. Similar analyses of the applicability of conventional weapons to addressing this threat are also being done.

We are not planning to resume testing; nor are we improving test readiness in order to develop new nuclear weapons. In fact, we are not planning to develop any new nuclear weapons at all. Our goal is designed to explore the full range of weapons concepts that could offer a credible deterrence and response to new and emerging threats as well as allow us to continue to assess the reliability of our stockpile without testing.

This is a sensible course that meets our national security requirements by restoring our capabilities and ensuring that we have the flexibility to respond quickly to any potential problems in the current stockpile, or to new threats that require immediate attention. Our policies are designed to strengthen the deterrent value of our nuclear weapons so that they don't ever have to be used.

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