Tauscher: exploring RRW in “our collective interest”

 In Nuclear Weapons

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA), chair of the Strategic Forces subcommittee of Armed Services, is an influential voice on nuclear nonproliferation, and has exhibited strong leadership in recent years on stopping the development of new nuclear weapons. Peace Action West has been putting intense grassroots pressure on Rep. Tauscher to encourage her to oppose the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a thinly veiled attempt to create a new nuclear weapon. The RRW could easily lead to resumption of nuclear testing, and the accompanying transformation of the nuclear weapons complex is conservatively estimated to cost $150 billion. Rep. Tauscher’s recent article in the Nonproliferation Review indicates that we will need to keep the letters, e-mails and phone calls coming over the next year:

The RRW is a replacement weapon, not a new weapon, as borne out by this analogy: our stockpile can be compared to a vintage automobile in dire need of repair. There is no need to get rid of the car because it is valuable, has served you well over the years, and can remain of benefit to you in the future. But while the car needs to be repaired, the maintenance of the car’s antiquated components, including its engine, has become very difficult and expensive.

Being a responsible car owner, you take your car to the shop. The mechanics replace the engine, but with one that is no more powerful or capable, yet more likely to start on the first try and less likely to stall while driving. They also add a new state of the art security system that prevents people from breaking into the car and either stealing the car itself or anything important you keep in the car. Finally, they work on the exhaust system to ensure that the fumes from the car have less of a negative impact on the environment.

After all of this work, when you drive the car out of the garage, do you have a new car? Of course not. But you do have a better operating, more protected, environmentally friendly, energy efficient car. This is what RRW could do for our nuclear stockpile. It should upgrade it and make it safer, but it should neither expand it nor violate the tenets of nonproliferation.

Rep. Tauscher bases her arguments on several flawed assumptions. One is her dismissal of concerns that the program in reality creates a new nuclear weapon. For five years, the Bush administration has tried and failed to develop new kinds of nuclear weapons. The RRW program is another bite at that apple. Every other potential rationale for the RRW has been disproved by multiple experts. Despite assurances from the Department of Energy, the international community will see the RRW as another roadblock to global nuclear disarmament. Former Senator Sam Nunn, another influential leader on this issues, emphasized these implications of the RRW in congressional testimony: "On the RRW itself, if Congress gives a green light to this program in our current world environment, I believe that this will be: Misunderstood by our allies; exploited by our adversaries; complicate our work to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons, including the essential steps I have outlined this morning; and make resolution of the Iran and North Korea challenges all the more difficult. I would not fund additional work on the RRW at this time.”

Another is the assumption that “for the foreseeable future, nuclear weapons will play an important role in deterring threats to the United States and our allies.” The geopolitical landscape has changed immensely since the Cold War, and we must seriously reexamine what purpose (and I would argue there is none) nuclear weapons serve in keeping the US secure. Our nuclear weapons stockpile has done nothing to deter terrorism, and US conventional military capacity is overwhelming compared to other governments. We live in an increasingly interconnected world, where national security means global security, and international partnerships are critical. The Bush administration’s attempts to build new nuclear weapons violate international agreements and erode our moral ground in convincing other nations to forgo them.

One of the most misleading points is Rep. Tauscher’s assertion that the RRW is a potentially necessary vehicle for reducing our current arsenal, thereby making it a path for the US to meet international commitments. The idea is that new, more reliable warheads will allow us to start dismantling weapons, while ensuring we maintain adequate nuclear capabilities.

In 2002, the leaked Nuclear Posture Review revealed the Bush administration’s vision for the future of the US nuclear arsenal. According to this document, the arsenal they intend to build could in theory be smaller, but it would also be more aggressive, with weapons designed to be “more useable” against our “enemies.” This does not keep with the spirit of our international commitments.

Additionally, the JASON Defense Advisory group determined that the plutonium in our current weapons will last 90 years or more, making them currently “reliable.”  The RRW, on the other hand, is a new, untested design.  The adoption of the RRW could open the door to resumption of nuclear testing, taking the US down a dangerous path of encouraging nuclear proliferation.  There is no reason reductions in our stockpile cannot start now without development of the RRW.

Many experts have dismissed the dubious rationales Rep. Tauscher gives for considering pursuit of the RRW program. For Peace Action West, the most compelling argument for opposing the program is that the development of a new nuclear warhead would undermine efforts to encourage global nuclear disarmament. 

Our colleagues at the Federation of American Scientists have put together an excellent deconstruction of Rep. Tauscher’s arguments.  If you live in Rep. Tauscher’s district, you can expect to see Peace Action West in your neighborhood in the coming months working to show her that her constituents want her to oppose this dangerous and unnecessary program.

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