For fiscal year 2012, the Obama administration requested a ten percent increase in funding for weapons activities under the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which oversees the U.S. nuclear stockpile and production complex. This increase was justified as essential for reducing the size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal and retaining a robust deterrent for the foreseeable future. However, the request has also raised questions in China about U.S. commitment to disarmament and strategic stability. At the second installment of the Strategic Stability Seminar Series, Thomas D'Agostino, Under Secretary for Nuclear Security and Administrator of the NNSA, joined a panel of distinguished Chinese and U.S. experts to discuss these issues in the context of NNSA complex modernization. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Disarmament Steps

D’Agostino highlighted the U.S. commitment to deepen its nuclear reductions, demonstrated in U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech in Prague and the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review. He argued that current measures aim to create a world free of nuclear weapons, while allowing time to achieve this goal. 
  • Life Extension: D’Agostino asserted that there is a close link between maintaining and eliminating a stockpile, given that extending the life of existing warheads avoids the production of new ones. However, he added that advanced technology is needed in order to maintain the safety and security of a stockpile that dates back to the 1960s and 1970s. One of the Chinese panelists asked how U.S. studies  on a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator and Reliable Replacement Warhead factored into Washington’s stated interest  in not pursuing new nuclear weapons. D’Agostino explained that these were feasibility studies that never came to fruition, and are not part of the current administration’s plans. In response to further questions on how the United States defines “new” nuclear weapons, D’Agostino clarified that the United States is committed to no nuclear testing, no new nuclear military missions, and no new nuclear military capabilities.  
  • Reductions: Since 1967, the U.S. stockpile has been reduced by 84 percent, said D’Agostino. With the ratification of the New START treaty in 2011, the United States and Russia pledged to limit their deployed strategic warheads to 1550. D’Agostino explained that the existing stockpile remains too large and expensive to maintain, but greater funding is needed due to the costs associated with dismantlement and facilities for the security, safety, and reliability of the remaining nuclear weapons. He also cited the importance of international  surveillance and control mechanisms. 
  • Dismantlement: Since 1994, more than 8,000 nuclear weapons have been dismantled, with many more marked for future destruction, noted D’Agostino. The fissile material derived from the dismantled weapons is destined for U.S. naval reactors, where it is down-blended and put into the U.S. domestic market for civil use, he said. D’Agostino detailed U.S. cooperative programs in place with Russia, such as the 1993 U.S.-Russia Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) Purchase Agreement, which provides for the conversion of 500 Megatons of HEU from dismantled Russian weapons to be down-blended into low enriched uranium (LEU) to fuel U.S. nuclear power plants. He also highlighted the 1994 Plutonium Disposition Agreement and 1997 Plutonium Production Reactor Agreement, which govern the disposal and production of weapons-grade plutonium by both the United States and Russia.
  • Transformation: The United States and its Nuclear Security Enterprise is transitioning from a capacity to a capabilities-based infrastructure, D’Agostino said. This is a lengthy process, with U.S. manufacture of highly enriched uranium ending in 1964 and manufacture of plutonium ending in 1988. In response to a question by a Chinese participant on future nuclear testing. D’Agostino noted that the United States has not conducted a nuclear test since 1993 and the Obama administration has voiced its support for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. 

Factoring in Security and China

  •  China: D’Agostino argued that the Obama administration is assessing how many nuclear weapons the United States needs to maintain its security. Saalman asked how China and its own nuclear modernization fit into U.S. calculations on the future of its nuclear stockpile. D’Agostino responded that nations are increasingly interdependent and advocated increased Sino-U.S. cooperation to demonstrate that their greatest threat is not each other, but rather a rogue nation or terrorist group obtaining nuclear weapons. 
  • Transparency: Several U.S. participants asked the Chinese panel how to best increase transparency in Sino-U.S. interaction on nuclear issues. One of the Chinese experts noted that China is often unclear on what the United States means by “transparency” and what type of information it seeks. China is already transparent when it comes to its policies and intentions, he continued. If the United States means nuclear warhead numbers or deployment, then under its posture of minimum nuclear deterrence and no-first-use, China is not in a position to provide such detail, he argued. Another Chinese expert noted that the term “ambiguity” might be more apt than “transparency” for use in China. A lack of strategic trust with the United States hinders China’s ability to be more open, added another Chinese panelist.
  • Cooperation: Saalman asked whether there were arenas of technical exchange that might enhance both cooperation and transparency. One of the Chinese panelists responded that the United States engages in more cooperation with Russia than with China. He emphasized that Sino-U.S. technical cooperation has been severely damaged since the release of the Cox report in the 1999. Chinese participants agreed that this report on alleged Chinese nuclear espionage continues to play a central role in the lack of strategic exchange between China and the United States, particularly between their scientific communities. Technical cooperation must be restored to enhance both mutual trust and China’s willingness to be more transparent, the Chinese experts argued.

 Discussants: Zhai Dequan, Zou Yunhua, Gu Guoliang, Teng Jianqun, Hong Yuan, Han Hua, Zhou Zhiwei, Zhong Zhong, Guo Xiaobing, Yang Qianru, Ren Jingjing, Liu Chong, Wu Riqiang, Zhou Shuai, Lin Yunzhi, Zhouxia Yiding, Ma Jiawen, Liang Xiao, Martin Schoenbauer, Michele Dash-Pauls, Wayne Alldridge, Mary Neu, Stephanie Duran, Shao Jun, Paloma Hill, Bill Flens, Austin Turner