Nuclear-Arms Treaties Could Save Us a Bundle

<i> Michael I. Sobel, a professor of physics, is at Princeton University on leave from Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. Frank von Hippel, a physicist, is a professor of public and international affairs at Princeton. </i>

Large parts of the U.S. nuclear-weapons production complex are shut down because of safety and environmental concerns. In response to a request from Congress, President Ronald Reagan submitted a plan last December for cleaning up, rebuilding and operating the complex over the next 20 years. The price of the plan is one-quarter of a trillion dollars, and an operating budget higher than that of his Administration at peak levels.

In a period of painful budgetary trade-offs, Congress and the Bush Administration will want to determine whether all of this expenditure is necessary to maintain national security. Their reviews should take into account the fact that the United States and the Soviet Union are moving into an era of nuclear-arms reductions. Indeed, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev announced in London last week that the Soviet Union has decided to discontinue production of highly enriched uranium for weapons and will shut down some of its plutonium production reactors.

Congress and the Administration also must not allow themselves to be stampeded into premature decisions about the future of the production complex by the state of near-panic over temporary closure of our tritium-production reactors. The tritium problem is greatly exaggerated, and is relevant to only a small part of the proposed expenditures.

The problem stems from the fact that tritium, an essential ingredient in most modern nuclear warheads, decays with a radioactive half-life of 12 years. Within a year or so, in the absence of new tritium, the United States would have to begin deactivating some warheads to maintain tritium levels in higher-priority warheads. There is enormous pressure on the Department of Energy to get at least one of its production reactors back on line by the end of 1989--even if the start-up must occur before all mandated safety improvements are in place.


The successful pursuit of arms reductions would, however, provide an alternative to sacrificing public safety. The treaty on intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and the proposed strategic arms-reduction treaty would retire thousands of warheads and make available tritium for the remaining warheads, keeping us ahead of the tritium decay curve for several years.

Nuclear-arms reductions have a potential for saving huge amounts of money in the longer term as well. The sizes of the U.S. and Soviet nuclear stockpiles are more than 10 times larger than required to maintain a survivable assured-destruction capability. The other 90% of the arsenals--including the 10,000 “tactical” nuclear weapons each side possesses--were originally justified by nuclear war-fighting ideas that are becoming increasingly discredited in both countries. Long-term planning should allow for the possibility that post-START nuclear-arms-reduction agreements could result in the requirement of a much smaller nuclear-production complex than we have today.

Such thinking was not evident in the Reagan plan. Indeed, some of the items in the plan would make sense only if we were planning a substantial increase in the size of our nuclear arsenal. The plan calls for the investment of many billions in the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. These investments include building extra production-reactor capacity to produce plutonium, refurbishing the plutonium-recovery facilities at the Savannah River plant in South Carolina and building a plant in Idaho for upgrading non-weapons-grade plutonium to weapon-grade.

We could maintain an arsenal of the current size indefinitely by recycling plutonium and weapons-grade uranium from obsolete to new nuclear warheads. Indeed, because of nuclear warheads that have recently been retired, John Herrington, President Reagan’s last secretary of energy, has stated that the United States is “awash in plutonium.”


The only justification given for these proposals is that the United States must have “a capability for responding to a possible breakout from any arms control agreement.” However, expansion of the U.S. arsenal would be a much less effective response to a Soviet arms-control violation than, for example, economic sanctions.

The Reagan plan advocates increased expenditures on research, development and testing of nuclear weapons in the hope that “technological advances . . . will provide the U.S. with options for political and military leverage.” This is a prescription for an accelerated nuclear arms race with continued diversion of U.S. technological talent away from work that could increase our economic competitiveness.

Even within the Energy Department, there are higher-priority needs than expansion of its nuclear-weapons development and production activities. For example, the department’s energy research and development program was cut back drastically under the Reagan Administration despite increasing U.S. oil imports and the need to reduce our dependence on climate-changing fossil fuels.

Similarly, despite great public concern about the radioactive mess that has been created at and in the ground water flowing underneath the nuclear-weapons-production sites, the plan proposes only a small start on environmental restoration.


Despite the threats to our national security posed by energy, economic and environmental problems, the Reagan Administration focused almost exclusively on the imperatives of developing and producing new nuclear weapons. Congress and the Bush Administration should shape a more balanced set of priorities.