Nuclear weapons are like the wedding at Cana

The supply of nuclear weapons can seem endless.

NuclearWarheadRemember the story in the Gospel of John from the Bible’s New Testament about the first miracle of Jesus Christ? To refresh your memory, Jesus attended a wedding with his mother and disciples (what, he couldn’t get a date?), in a village called Cana, which may have been in Galilee in northern Israel. When the wine ran out, he converted containers of water into wine. John also told us about the miracle of the loaves and fishes, which entailed Jesus feeding thousands with five barley loaves and two small fish. 

The U.S. government can be pretty miraculous, too. It’s demonstrated a capability to perform a similar act to Jesus, but with nuclear weapons. The more they disappear, it seems, the more magically others reappear to replace them.

On May 1, Gregg Mello, Executive Director of the Los Alamos Study Group, issued what he calls a press backgrounder, but which the rest of us might call an in-depth article complete with tables and graphs. He breaks down the Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) audit of the Obama administration’s nuclear-weapon dismantlement program as carried out by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). (Note: A nuclear weapon is considered dismantled when its plutonium “pit” is removed.) The results of the audit, through no fault of the GAO, were muddled. Mello writes:

GAO found that NNSA could not unambiguously describe its overall progress in dismantling the “several thousand” U.S. nuclear warheads already retired from the arsenal. This ambiguity arises in part because thousands of these warheads are being held in varying degrees of what in plain English might be called “partial” or “contingent” retirement, their final fate depending on stockpile and infrastructure decisions yet to be made and [on] the completion of actions which cannot be done until the late 2020s or early 2030s.


Approximately 9% percent of all warheads retired prior to 2009 but not yet dismantled are scheduled to be reinstated to the stockpile in 2013 and after. … The dismantlement process … typically results in reusable hard-to-make nuclear and non-nuclear components [such as thousands of pits that] are kept for possible future use. … The GAO found there is no system of tracking warhead retirement dates, making it doubly impossible to assess progress toward NNSA’s previous goal – adopted during the Bush Administration in 2006 but now apparently meaningless – of dismantling all warheads retired prior to 2009 by 2022.

Nor do we know exactly “which warheads and bombs are being dismantled or the arms control and disarmament significance of these dismantlements.” Furthermore, Mello reproduces a table that shows “the average dismantlement rate under President Obama is less than that of the three previous presidents.”

Meanwhile, here’s what elicited the comparisons with the miracles of Jesus:

… warhead retirements under Obama have been made contingent on new warhead production capacity and on successful completion of warhead modernization projects, neither of which can be done before the late 2020s.

Not only have “the concept of warhead retirement and the data quality concerning the size of the stockpile … been eroded,” but

The budget and program prioritization of modernization over dismantlement is not at all new, although it is certainly new in this extreme degree. What is new is that warhead retirements and dismantlements are being held politically hostage to the approval and success of modernization programs.

Come to think of it, a better comparison might be the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Fantasia. Whatever the case, disarmament that depends on developing new nuclear weapons is obviously not true disarmament. Still, while the shrinking space available for nuclear weapons in the national budget might not bode well for the economy as a whole, it’s fortuitous for disarmament. Elsewhere Mello writes, “Keeping the present U.S. arsenal, with planned upgrades and replacements, will cost $1 trillion over the coming 30 years, assuming all goes reasonably well with planned major procurements.” He further explains in an email to us (emphasis added):

I think much disarmament is inevitable, and within the decade, because difficult objective events are upon us and they will compel governments to deal with them in a way that makes nuclear modernization on the scale being proposed impossible. Ultimate nuclear abolition is also certain. It is not “the top of a mountain,” as Sam Nunn put it. Sam Nunn has no idea what he is talking about. Disarmament could be a pleasant stroll from perilous heights down to the green valley, where those who walked down would be welcomed with garlands and tears of joy. Otherwise, nuclear abolition will be found in the pit of a nuclear or global warming hell. So nuclear abolition is not uncertain. It is inevitable. The question is how it will come ― whether we can stop the criminal conspiracy which is killing nature and the human race ― and whether we will be around to experience that condition.

The national security apparatus, the perennial deep state, has charged its staff to maintain a large, diverse nuclear arsenal and to prevent any rivals to U.S. hegemony from arising. Obama didn’t need much coaching to utter those words in Prague that said, to all who have ears, “We will not have nuclear disarmament.” They heard the illusion described. They got the memo. They are carrying it out. They just told GAO how it is. To them, disarmament is only possible if it can be made illusory. That was the import of the President’s Prague speech. I’m sorry so many arms control professionals and journalists didn’t understand that. Maybe they will now. I’m not holding my breath.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.