By Mary Beth Sheridan and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 1, 2010; A09
The Obama administration is likely to reveal a closely guarded secret -- the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile -- during a critical meeting starting Monday at which Washington will try to strengthen the global treaty that curbs the spread of nuclear weapons, several officials said.
Various factions in the administration have debated for months whether to declassify the numbers, and they were left out of President Obama's recent Nuclear Posture Review because of objections from intelligence officials. Now, the administration is seeking a dramatic announcement that will further enhance its nuclear credentials as it tries to shore up the fraying nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).
The numbers could be released as soon as Monday, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is to address the NPT Review Conference in New York, officials said. She will speak after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is likely to repeat his demands for more global controls over the stockpiles of the nuclear nations.
U.S. officials fear he could hijack the conference with such demands, diverting attention from his own nuclear program, which is widely seen as violating the nonproliferation treaty.
Arms-control groups estimate the U.S. arsenal contains 9,000 weapons, with roughly 5,000 of them active and the rest in line for dismantlement.
Arms-control activists and officials in the Energy and State departments have argued that making the numbers public would prove how much progress the U.S. government has made in shrinking its Cold War arsenal.
That's important because, under the NPT, nuclear-weapons countries promise to move toward disarmament, while non-nuclear nations pledge they won't build a bomb. A total of 189 countries are treaty members.
The last NPT Review Conference, in 2005, collapsed in failure, with many countries accusing the Bush administration of shirking its disarmament obligations.'A major step'
Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation Initiative at the New America Foundation, said releasing the U.S. numbers would be "a major step forward in transparency."
"The United States has not gotten enough credit for the reductions it has made," he said. "That's even true of the Bush administration. . . . It makes it easier for us to make the case we are in fact reducing the number of nuclear weapons."
The U.S. intelligence community has been concerned that terrorists or states with nuclear ambitions could use the numbers to figure out how much plutonium or uranium is needed to make a bomb. But Lewis and other arms-control advocates say information on that is easy to find.
Several officials said the announcement on the stockpile numbers will be made during the conference. But one senior official cautioned that no final decision had been made. He noted that legally, such information could be declassified only if it were clear it would not lead to further nuclear proliferation. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
There appears to be only one instance when current figures on the size of the U.S. stockpile were made public. In 1992, Gen. Colin L. Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, included aggregate stockpile numbers in a chart used at a congressional hearing on a new strategic arms agreement.
The numbers had not been declassified, but the disclosure apparently attracted no news coverage at the time. According to a 2000 Department of Energy document, the Defense Department steadfastly refused to declassify the stockpile figures even after the Powell presentation.On a nuclear roll
The Obama administration believes it is going into the NPT conference in a position of strength, pointing to a string of recent nuclear achievements -- including an arms treaty with Russia and a nuclear-terrorism summit that drew 46 countries to Washington.
The NPT, which took effect in 1970, is widely seen as one of the world's most successful treaties. But it is facing its greatest strain in a quarter-century, due to the Iranian program and North Korea's decision to quit the pact after having secretly developed a bomb. Iran insists its program is aimed at producing peaceful nuclear energy, but it has hidden its nuclear facilities from inspectors. It has also been sanctioned three times by the U.N. Security Council for defying its orders to stop enriching uranium.
The NPT review conferences, held every five years, have often turned into battles between the nuclear haves and have-nots. Several of the meetings have ended without final declarations, which require consensus.
U.S. officials are trying to lower expectations for this month-long conference, noting that Iran will likely object to any final declaration constraining its program.
"A final document should not be the measure of success," said Ellen O. Tauscher, the undersecretary for arms control, in a speech Thursday at the Center for American Progress.
The U.S. strategy is to get a supermajority of countries to agree to a plan to pursue new ways to punish nuclear cheaters and encourage the adoption of more nuclear safeguards. U.S. officials said it could provide momentum for seeking change in other venues, such as at the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Colum Lynch contributed to this report.