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former IAEA Director-General

Obama Weighs Nuclear Options
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July/August 2016

By Kingston Reif

As his time in office winds down, President Barack Obama is reviewing a number of proposals to advance the nuclear weapons risk agenda he first outlined in an April 2009 address in Prague, a senior White House official said on June 6.

“[O]ur work is not done on this issue,” said Benjamin Rhodes, assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, at the Arms Control Association’s annual meeting in Washington.

According to Rhodes, the different categories of options under consideration include further reductions in the U.S. stockpile of nondeployed, or reserve, nuclear warheads; “additional steps” to lessen the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy and reduce the risk of inadvertent nuclear use; reaffirming “the international norm against” nuclear explosive testing; and putting “more nuclear material under appropriate monitoring.” 

In addition, Rhodes said the president would continue to evaluate current plans to ramp up spending in the coming years to maintain and modernize U.S. nuclear weapons and also decide whether to “leave the next administration” with recommendations on how to “move forward.” (See ACT, May 2016.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter told the Senate and House armed services committees in March that he “expects the total cost of nuclear modernization to be in the range of $350-450 billion.” 

“Our administration has already made plain our concerns about how the modern-ization budget will force difficult trade-offs in the coming decades,” Rhodes said. 

He added that the modernization plans were “developed” early in the administration’s first term “when we...anticipated a different budgetary picture going forward, particularly with respect to our defense budget.” 

Congress in 2011 passed the Budget Control Act, which mandated reductions in projected spending in the Defense and Energy departments through the end of the decade. 

Rhodes did not specify a timeline for when the president would make a decision on whether to pursue any of the options under consideration and, if so, when he would announce such a decision.

Rhodes noted that the president would continue to speak publicly about nuclear weapons issues, as he did during his visit to Hiroshima on May 27. (See ACT, June 2016.)

Obama delivered his first major foreign policy address as president on nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation in Prague on April 5, 2009. The speech outlined his vision for strengthening global efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons and moving forward on practical, immediate steps “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

In highlighting what the administration has accomplished since the speech, Rhodes touted “substantial progress in securing vulnerable nuclear materials around the world” as a result of the nuclear security summit process, measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, the negotiation and U.S. Senate approval of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), and the July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. 

Rhodes acknowledged “other areas...where more work needs to be done.” 

He said the administration has failed to stop “the advance of North Korea’s nuclear program,” achieve further nuclear weapons reductions beyond New START, and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Posted: July 5, 2016