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The State of Nuclear Nonproliferation
Katie Donnelly

For many people, nuclear nonproliferation is something abstract — something that concerns international policy and what other countries do, but not their everyday lives. But several nuclear-related topics not only are important to the nation’s security, but also are scientifically interesting.

Even though Congress’ primary job is to legislate nationally, it does have a hand in shaping international nuclear policy. For example, the Senate ratifies all international treaties, and through the authorization and appropriations processes, both chambers of Congress set nuclear policy by controlling funding for programs.

At the diplomatic table, Congress cannot participate; only the president has that authority. Therefore, it was President Bush and, under his direction, the Department of State, that participated in the Seventh Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Still, Congress is able to express its sentiments in a nonbinding resolution. I worked on such a resolution in the House of Representatives under Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and other members reaffirming Congress’ commitment to the NPT and outlining how the treaty could be strengthened.

Congress has a more direct role in setting national nuclear policies, such as the development of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, the so-called nuclear bunker buster, which is designed to burrow into the ground to take out underground fortresses. The argument for the nuclear bunker buster is that it is needed as a deterrent to rogue dictators such as Kim Jong-il of North Korea, who has tunneled into mountains to build such bunkers. But the massive collateral damage caused by using a nuclear bunker buster makes it unlikely that any American president would actually use it. In addition, Kim Jong-il could always tunnel deeper into a mountain and effectively tunnel out of the reach of a nuclear bunker buster.

The scientific community has also spoken out on the limitations of such a weapon, particularly with regard to how deep it could penetrate and how effectively radioactive fallout could be contained. More recently, the National Research Council released a study mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2003 (Public Law 107-314) that found that a nuclear bunker buster would cause extensive radioactive fallout, and that the limited penetration belowground would have little to no effect on containing the fallout.

With this information, Congress did not fund the program last year. And this year, 134 House members signed letters that were authored by Markey, asking for funding to be to cut again. For my part, I worked to educate House members and their staff on the scientific concepts surrounding the issue.

Another nuclear issue concerns the reliability of our nuclear weapons stockpile and whether some warheads should be tested. A new program was created called the Reliable Replacement Warhead. This year, the House added language to define the objective of the program in the Defense Authorization bill (H.R. 1815). Beyond increasing reliability and safety, the objectives laid out included: reducing the likelihood of future testing by keeping designs within already well-known and tested parameters when possible, and working to achieve reductions in size of the nuclear stockpile in the future. Arms control NGOs worry that the scope of the program is still not clearly defined and that it could be used to develop new nuclear weapons in the future.

If the Reliable Replacement Warhead program achieves its objectives of avoiding future testing, then the United States has one less reason not to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The other reason still prevalent on the Hill is fear of other groups secretly testing such weapons, despite the science that shows that we can unambiguously and effectively monitor testing worldwide.

Also in the nuclear issues realm, nuclear fuel reprocessing is being promoted once again. Nuclear reprocessing is when the used or “spent” fuel from a reactor is reprocessed to extract plutonium-239. This plutonium can then be used for reactor fuel. I worked on two amendments to prevent government funding for reprocessing.

The United States has not done commercial reprocessing since the 1970s. Reprocessing raises several concerns. First, plutonium-239 can be used to make a nuclear bomb, and a smaller quantity is needed than for a uranium bomb. This is the process with which Kim Jong-il is suspected of making several nuclear weapons. Second, Bush has repeatedly said that reprocessing represents a serious proliferation risk and that not all countries should have access to it. Third, reprocessing is costly; a 2003 MIT study estimates that it is four times as expensive to reprocess as it is to just use nuclear fuel once. Still, the United States is thinking about pursuing reprocessing, while several European countries are reprocessing and Japan is nearing completion of a reprocessing plant. Proponents of reprocessing point to the nuclear waste storage problem and the continued delays and setbacks in opening Yucca Mountain. They also argue that the risk of proliferation is not great and that innovation should not be restricted. However, the MIT study concluded that at the present time, any potential benefit in waste management by reprocessing is outweighed by the safety, environmental, and security risks, as well as by the economic costs.

Stay tuned to these issues. Neither of the amendments on reprocessing were successful, and the NPT resolution stalled in committee. On the nuclear bunker buster, part of the funding was transferred to testing of conventional bunker busters, but some money remains for adapting the B-2 bomber to carry a nuclear bunker buster. Of course, the Senate and House must agree on similar language, so the final word has yet to be heard.

On all of these issues, science contributes critical information. While it may often appear that science is not always listened to on the Hill, it does infiltrate, and some Congress members, and staff members like myself, rely on it.


Donnelly is working in Rep. Edward Markey’s (D-Mass.) office as the 2004-2005 American Geological Institute Congressional Fellow, one of about 30 fellows sponsored by science and engineering societies.

Go to the GAP Web site for past Congressional Fellows' comments.


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