“The Limitation Of Nuclear Materials As A Means Of Controlling Armaments”

Testimony of



6 June 1989

Mr. Chairman, I am grateful to the Committee for affording me an opportunity to comment on efforts such as H.R. 2403, the International Plutonium Control Act, aimed at imposing constraints on nuclear armaments through oblique means, rather than direct ones. My view of such initiatives can be summed up very briefly: Such bank-shot arms control initiatives are ill-advised, disingenuous and potentially dangerous for U.S. national security.

There is a simple reason for such a harsh judgment. I am persuaded (as I believe the vast majority of the American people and even most Members of Congress are) — that nuclear weapons have played — and will for the foreseeable future play — a decisive role in deterring Soviet aggression against the United States and her allies.

Accordingly, I believe that high national priority should be attached to every aspect of our nuclear arsenal. As long as we must rely upon nuclear weapons, it is imprudent and irresponsible to undermine the various component parts of the infrastructure that permit such weapons to be effective, reliable and safe. I put in this category new efforts to constrain nuclear testing, to prevent the long-overdue construction of new facilities for manufacture of nuclear components and materials and to prohibit those already built from operating as needed. Were such initiatives to become law, the outcome is unquestioned: eventually — if not in very short order — the United States would be unable to field credible nuclear deterrent forces.

The more honest of the advocates of such bank-shot arms control initiatives will acknowledge that this outcome is the intended one. They are not particularly troubled that their actions might produce asymmetrical results in U.S. and Soviet forces or that verification would be problematic.

Fortunately, it is still the case that most Members of Congress will not agree to so dubious a course of action — provided it is presented in such a manner. Consequently, in the interest of maximizing the salability of these indirect means of constraining nuclear forces, some of their champions have simply dissembled. They have suggested that there is nothing inconsistent between Congressmen’s votes to build Midgetman or Trident II missiles or B-1 bombers on the one hand, and on the other, the endorsement of amendments curbing the testing or production activities required if those weapons are to have deterrent value.

The International Plutonium Control Act:

I believe this subterfuge is at work in connection with H.R. 2403, the International Plutonium Control Act. Supporters of this legislation have implied that our nuclear arsenal is unaffected by the current absence of U.S. production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes. It is a short step from that fallacious assertion to maintaining that a permanent inability for such production would have equally benign effects. From there it is an even shorter leap of faith to contend that we would be well served were our own hiatus in production of these special nuclear materials to be codified in a treaty ostensibly imposing similar constraints upon the Soviet Union.

The truth is radically different: Unless the United States is able in the future to obtain additional plutonium (either through isotope separation of existing reserves or through new production) and to resume production of highly enriched uranium, this country will be unable to meet its currently projected military requirements. This is the case with or without a START treaty. For this reason alone, the permanent ban on U.S. production of these special nuclear materials for weapons purposes envisioned by H.R. 2403 should be understood for what it is — an arrangement wholly incompatible with the maintenance of the necessary U.S. deterrent.

This Legislation Promises More than It Delivers:

There are, however, several other significant problems with this legislation. Some are suggested by the differences between the bill’s working title and its actual content. While it talks about international control of plutonium neither are accurate descriptions of its terms. With regard to the latter, the bill actually would encumber highly enriched uranium production as well as plutonium.

Concerning the former, H.R. 2403 is really only a bilateral measure, not one that provides the sort of multilateral controls usually associated with the word "international." This narrowness of focus is the more striking because it proposes to limit superpower production of special nuclear materials (SNM) even as a growing number of nations are judged to be capable of enriching bomb-grade uranium and/or producing plutonium for nuclear weapons purposes.

It is not self-evident that U.S. security is advanced by making American capabilities inferior to say those of India, Iraq, Pakistan, Taiwan, etc. One must ask in the aftermath of the INF Treaty whether it is a desirable development to have the United States be one of only two nations in the world legally prohibited from fielding INF- and SRINF-range missiles. It would appear no more in our interest to pursue a similarly disadvantaged position when it comes to capabilities necessary for effective nuclear forces.

The usual riposte, of course, is that such superpower restraint is necessary if others aspiring to possession of nuclear weapons are to be dissuaded from acquiring them. In fact, it appears that such states’ perceptions of their own local security requirements seem to be vastly more important influences in such decisions than are the behavior of the United States and the Soviet Union.

The Bill Involves Insoluble Definitional Difficulties:

The foregoing criticisms of the bill would be valid even if the Soviets were equally bound by its terms. Unfortunately, there is abundant reason to believe that such parity will not necessarily result. Ironically, in its effort to make a bilateral agreement along these lines seem less incompatible with vital U.S. defense programs, H.R. 2403 distinguishes between plutonium and enriched uranium production for weapons purposes –which would be prohibited — and production of these materials for other purposes (i.e., naval propulsion and the Soviet breeder reactor, respectively). As a consequence, however, of this formulation, the Soviets are assured of retaining formidable opportunities to cheat and/or breakout of the proposed agreement.

What is more, the approaches usually offered to alleviate concerns about possible Soviet diversion of critical SNM or to prepare to breakout of an agreement prohibiting their production for weapons purposes are equally problematic. For one thing, the United States would be mad to permit Soviet intelligence into its facilities involved in one of the few remaining areas of militarily decisive technological advantage: naval nuclear propulsion. For another, the Soviet military’s inherent access to civilian RBMK reactors — in contrast to the legal separation between U.S. defense and civil nuclear programs — offers them a ready stand-by capability to manufacture "prohibited" nuclear materials, irrespective of any monitoring arrangements that might be negotiated.

Disingenuineness on Other SNM Activities:

Finally, there is a particularly suspect argument being made on behalf of this legislation to assure skeptics that it will not impinge upon American security requirements. This argument holds that, since H.R. 2403 does not preclude production of tritium or the recovery of plutonium from retired weapons, critical SNM needs will continue to be satisfied.

It must be noted, however, that literature being circulated about this legislation by some of its sponsors makes reference to the need "to prohibit the recycling of explosive materials into new weapons" if "future arms reduction agreements [are] to be verifiable and reliable." This material also makes the statement that "without significant reductions in nuclear arsenals, both countries can be expected to continue producing tritium in order to maintain their nuclear weapons." The implication clearly is that, with significant reductions, tritium production will not be needed to support the remaining arsenal. In fact, as the Committee knows, there is a parallel effort underway to deny funds needed to restore a reliable U.S. supply of tritium. Indeed, the description of this legislation by its advocates as a "fissile materials cutoff," seems closer to the truth than do their assurances that the bill will not imperil related SNM activities.


In closing, Mr. Chairman, I simply wish to repeat my appreciation to you for allowing these observations about the International Plutonium Control Act to be made a part of the Committee’s deliberations. I hope that my views about the incompatibility of this legislation with present and future U.S. defense requirements and national interests will help to illuminate some of its serious shortcomings.

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