On Wednesday at the United Nations, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will open for signature. For signatories, this treaty prohibits nuclear weapons altogether. Its explicit goal is a universal norm against all forms of participation in the nuclear weapons industry.
Designing, testing, producing, possessing, threatening with, deploying and using nuclear weapons are to be banned. Crucially, assistance or encouragement in these illegal acts will also be banned, as will stationing of nuclear weapons, both of which impact U.S. nuclear alliances, including NATO. Signatory states will be required to enact administrative and penal sanctions against anyone involved with the nuclear weapons industry.
The ban treaty was negotiated against heavy opposition from the U.S. and other nuclear weapon states — they obviously won’t sign. In the end, the text was approved by 122 countries. It is likely to enter into force next year and to gradually gain adherents thereafter, a process that will keep U.S. nuclear “modernization” in the news around the world.
In all this, whither Santa Fe? While the City Different seeks a positive international reputation, the metro area hosts the world’s most lavishly funded labs and production facilities for soon-to-be-outlawed nuclear weapons.
So far, our congressional delegation, following Los Alamos National Laboratory, wants to restart production of plutonium warhead cores (“pits”). The new pits are “needed” solely for building a new kind of (untested and redundant) warhead the U.S. Navy doesn’t want. The U.S. Air Force has secretly admitted the same. Pits in existing weapons are all in fine condition and will remain so for decades.
As a dubious reward for its enduring loyalty to the Los Alamos lab, the Santa Fe metro area has long hosted the state’s largest nuclear waste dump, visible from high ground anywhere from Eldorado to Truchas. Area G is now stuffed to the gills and might finally close at the end of this month. Then again, the lab may expand the site.
A plutonium factory for outlawed weapons and a nuclear waste dump. That’s a city “different” all right.
Actually, Los Alamos seeks two unnecessary plutonium programs, not just pit production but also the messy and dangerous processing of tons of surplus pits for disposal at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Instead of this, permanently demilitarizing pits without opening them up, followed by direct disposal, would be adequate, cheap, safe and quick. The lab need not and should not be involved, no matter what plan the Department of Energy chooses.
Without new warheads (that the rest of the world hates), the labs would shrink. Los Alamos would not need to make pits, let alone build underground workshops (estimated cost: $300,000 per square foot).
Why have silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles at all? Former Secretary of Defense William Perry and former U.S. Strategic Command Commander (and later, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) James Cartwright are among those who believe the U.S. would be more secure without any ICBMs.
We agree. By 2030 or so, U.S. ICBMs will age out. Former President Barack Obama began (and Trump continues) a huge program to replace them. Department of Defense estimates the new missiles, equipment and software will cost between $85 billion and $150 billion, a fiscal disaster comparable to Hurricane Harvey. Building missiles creates no productive infrastructure, mitigates no climate change and creates few jobs.
That sum, wisely invested in leveraging more renewable energy, would go a long way toward ending coal burning in the U.S. while building nonexportable jobs, skills and communities.
The new missiles are just part of the Obama-Trump plan to replace every single nuclear weapon system, reliably estimated to cost more than $1 trillion. These are not the “deployments” our children need. The world is crying out for fresh priorities that will give their children and our world a chance. Will our congressional delegation listen?
Greg Mello is director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear disarmament-focused nonprofit, based in Albuquerque.