Senate panel briefed on nuclear treaty

June 25, 2012

Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, notification from the Russian government comes into the U.S. Nuclear Risk Reduction Center located at the State Department. Word arrives of any change for each of Moscow’s nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, each land- and sub-based launcher, or each strategic bomber.

Washington sends similar information on U.S. nuclear forces to Russia’s Nuclear Risk Reduction Center.

Since the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) began on Feb. 5, 2011, “we have exchanged over 2,500 [such] notifications,” Rose Gottemoeller, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday.

Databases exchanged every six months detailing where each strategic nuclear weapon system is located, whether deployed, undergoing maintenance or being retired, provides “a truly real-time look at what is going on inside the Russian strategic forces,” Gottemoeller reported as part of an update on the treaty’s implementation.

Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, one of 13 Republicans who in December 2010 voted to ratify the treaty, requested the session. At the time of the vote, Mitt Romney, now the Republican presidential challenger, opposed the treaty.

Corker is up for reelection, and Tennessee’s Republican primary is Aug. 2. His main opponent is a tea party member. More about that later.

One critical part of the new treaty is its inspections, which take place when there are fewer sites to see and inspectors have a wider area of viewing.

Gottemoeller said there have been “up to 25 short-notice inspections since the treaty entered into force.” They included, she said, “inspections that are designed to confirm the exact number of reentry vehicles, or warheads, on individual missiles selected for inspection.”

As a result, Gottemoeller said, “We are now able to confirm the exact number of warheads on any randomly selected Russian ICBM and SLBM [sub-launched ballistic missile], something that we were not able to do under the 1991 START treaty.”

Inspectors also got their first good look at the new Russian RS-24 mobile ICBM and its launch vehicle, something not possible under the old treaty.

Madelyn Creedon, assistant secretary of defense for global strategic affairs, explained how the United States planned to get down to the new START limits of 1,550 deployed warheads on 700 delivery systems, as well as another 100 delivery platforms not deployed.

She also described plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to modernize the nation’s triad of delivery systems, a critical part of the debate over the treaty.

Thomas D’Agostino, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nation’s nuclear weapons building complex, had the toughest time with the panel. The administration had fallen behind in getting Congress to approve increases in funding to rebuild the aging nuclear weapons complex — one basis for Corker and other Republicans supporting the treaty.

President Obama requested the promised amount for the current fiscal year, but Congress, led by Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee, cut it. That means the administration’s request for fiscal 2013 lags behind the 2010 promised amounts.

While requesting more money, the administration cut out advanced funding for what is to become a $6 billion major chemistry and metallurgy replacement (CMR) facility to deal with plutonium research at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Nonetheless, D’Agostino said that life extension programs are underway for 80 percent of the deployed nuclear systems and that a new $167 million radiological laboratory at Los Alamos could handle some plutonium research previously thought safe to do only in the postponed CMR building.

Corker told D’Agostino that he was “highly disappointed in the follow-through on modernization [of the nuclear weapons complex]. . . . You know that you’re still not living up to the commitments that have been made.”

Corker focused particularly on plutonium pits, the nuclear triggers that ignite thermonuclear weapons, and the need to produce 50 or more a year in the future. Although the nation has several thousand pits taken from older warheads that have been retired, the major facility that built them at Rocky Flats, Colo., has been closed. A much smaller facility at Los Alamos provides about 20 pits a year, the number currently needed.

Critics have tied the delay of the CMR facility to the pits issue, but the facility has nothing to do with their production. D’Agostino explained to Corker that a new way to reuse pits is being planned but could be discussed only in closed session.

An annoyed Corker noted that before the treaty “the reuse of plutonium pits was not acceptable. Now, all of a sudden, it’s acceptable. I just find that to be fascinating.”

Corker closed his questioning by saying, “For what it’s worth, this one United States senator would be most reticent to agree to any treaty with this administration on any topic until something changes as it relates to the commitments on the START treaty.”

Zach Poskevich, Corker’s tea party electoral challenger, has criticized the senator’s vote for the treaty, saying it “extremely reduces the United States’ capability to defend ourselves.”

I expect some of Corker’s statements Thursday to show up in a political ad on Tennessee TV sometime before Aug. 2.

The treaty may not have helped make Corker’s Senate seat more secure, but it certainly has made the nation safer.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to wapo.st/walter-pincus.

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