Biden: U.S. must spend to shrink nuclear arms stockpile

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

Vice President Biden started building a public case for President Obama's ambitious nuclear arms policy Thursday, defending the decision to increase spending on the U.S. nuclear weapons complex even as the administration seeks to shrink the stockpile.

The president's recent request for a boost in funds to maintain the stockpile and laboratories appeared to be, in part, a sweetener for Senate Republicans. Many of them have said it is risky to cut U.S. nuclear forces unless more money is spent to ensure that the remaining weapons are in good shape.

But Biden also tried to assuage the left's concerns, saying that a beefed-up nuclear infrastructure will allow scientists to ensure that weapons still work without blowing them up in tests. That argument will be central to the administration's effort to gain ratification of a global nuclear test-ban treaty, which the Senate rejected during the Clinton administration.

Investment in the nuclear complex "is not only consistent with our nonproliferation agenda, it is essential to it," Biden said at the National Defense University in Washington in what was billed as a major speech.

The address came at a critical moment for Obama's nuclear weapons policy, one of his highest priorities and a key reason for his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

The administration is about to release a sweeping document to guide U.S. nuclear policy for the next five to 10 years. Arms-control advocates are worried that the Nuclear Posture Review, due early next month, will not live up to Obama's promises to move toward a world without nuclear weapons.

At the same time, negotiators are nearing completion of what could be Obama's first major arms-control achievement: a U.S.-Russia treaty slashing each country's long-range, ready-to-launch "strategic" nuclear weapons by about a third. The administration is likely to face a battle gaining the 67 votes needed for Senate ratification.

Meanwhile, the dangers of a new nuclear arms race in the Middle East continue to mount, with the U.N. nuclear watchdog reporting in unusually explicit language Thursday that Iran might be working on a nuclear warhead.

Biden appeared eager to dispel the idea that Obama's vision of a world without nuclear weapons is unrealistic given the threat posed by countries such as Iran. The arms control treaty with Russia, he said, "will build momentum for collaboration" on strengthening penalties against countries that start building nuclear weapons.

Biden sought to portray Obama's policies as muscular, focusing on the decision to seek $7 billion in the 2011 budget to maintain the stockpile and improve nuclear labs -- a $624 million increase over last year.

"Unfortunately, during the last decade, our nuclear complex and experts were neglected and underfunded," he said. Nuclear laboratories lost more than 2,000 employees between 2006 and 2008 because of tight budgets and facilities handling uranium and plutonium for weapons were so decayed that they had become "a threat to our security," he said.

But Biden also tried to bat away concerns on the left that pouring money into the labs could hinder progress on reducing the stockpile of active weapons, estimated to total more than 5,000.

Such investment ultimately "allows us to pursue deep nuclear reductions without compromising our security," he said, suggesting that if the government can be sure that the weapons are reliable, it could shrink the stock of weapons it is storing as backups.

Biden said that there is "a broad and deep consensus" in the government on the president's nuclear agenda, an apparent effort to tamp down reports of conflict as the departments of Defense, State and Energy hammered out the Nuclear Posture Review. The vice president, an ardent advocate of arms control, was introduced by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who is viewed as more conservative.

Analysts on both sides of the issue said it will be difficult for Obama to realize his nuclear policy goals.

"The administration's agenda is essential to make the country safer, but they face an enormous challenge in gaining the support of Cold Warriors in the Senate without alienating their traditional allies" on the left, said Stephen Young of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Henry Sokolski, of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said the administration is spending too much time on efforts that could take years and might get further with more-incremental goals.

"There are a lot of modest things that would make a substantive difference," he said.

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