For much of the past six years, President Obama has talked about working toward a world without nuclear weapons. Yet his administration is now investing tens of billions of dollars in modernizing and rebuilding America’s nuclear arsenal and facilities, as The Times reported in detail on Monday. And after good progress in making nuclear bomb material more secure around the world, Mr. Obama has reduced his budget requests for that priority. This is a shortsighted and disappointing turn.
With the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria dominating news headlines, it is easy to forget the threat that nuclear weapons and nuclear material continue to pose around the world. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists says there are 16,300 nuclear weapons located at some 98 sites in 14 countries, a vast majority in the United States and Russia. There are also 25 countries that possess enough nuclear and radiological materials to build a weapon, with such material held at hundreds of sites, many vulnerable to extremists.
When he first came to office, Mr. Obama was clearsighted about nuclear dangers and ambitious in his disarmament goals. His major arms control achievement was the New Start treaty with Moscow aimed at reducing deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 on each side, down from 2,200, by February 2018. But to win Republican support for the treaty in 2010, Mr. Obama made a Faustian bargain, promising to spend $84 billion to upgrade aging nuclear weapons over the next decade, a $14 billion increase over the regular $70 billion modernization budget.
Worse yet, the administration is making a foolish trade-off — pouring money into modernization while reducing funds that help improve security at nuclear sites in Russia and other countries where terrorists or criminals could get their hands on nuclear materials.