On treaty’s third anniversary, rethinking nuclear weapons

From N.C. Rep. Pricey Harrison, D-Guilford:

Three years ago today, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) came into effect. This landmark agreement between the U.S. and Russia established verification measures that allow both nations to eliminate nuclear weapons in a mutual, stable and transparent way.

New START ratification was a personal victory for me as well as a national one. I supported the treaty’s ratification because it meant a future with fewer nuclear weapons. Three years later, there are 7,700 nuclear weapons left in the stockpile, a legacy of the Cold War arms race that defied common sense. The same type of logic is still applied to nuclear weapons today, even though the 21st century demands a very different type of thinking.

The tension between Cold War-era nuclear weapons policy and their actual mission has become apparent in recent weeks. As of this writing, 92 missileers have been relieved of their duties because of drug abuse and cheating on their job proficiency exams. Officers in charge of the nuclear mission have been removed from their posts due to misconduct such as excessive drinking while representing the U.S. military and gambling with counterfeit money. These problems reflect a declining mission, a knowledge that nuclear weapons aren’t needed to defend the United States from today’s threats.

The Air Force’s recent troubles are quite worrisome. Nuclear disasters might feel far off, but thanks to a recent book by Eric Schlosser, “Command and Control,” we know how close we have come to one. In one widely reported account taken from Schlosser’s book, North Carolina and the entire eastern seaboard was one fail-safe switch away from nuclear catastrophe. In 1961, a B-52 carrying Mark 39 bombs – which are 250 times more destructive than that dropped on Hiroshima – broke up in midair and the bombs fell to the ground. Three of four safety switches stopped working. Had the last one failed, too, “a postulate that seems credible,” according to a declassified document from that time, the bombs would have caused untold horror to North Carolinians and beyond.

Dollars better used elsewhere

Meanwhile, over the next 10 years, the United States will spend $570 billion on nuclear weapons and related costs, according to a new study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. In the next 30 years, deploying, upgrading and maintaining nuclear weapons and their delivery platforms are expected to cost a minimum of $1 trillion, based on a study by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

In this time of budget austerity, the dollars we spend on the Cold War-era nuclear arsenal are dollars that are not being spent on early childhood education, economic security, energy independence, higher education and public assistance for those in need. North Carolinians deserve better.

North Carolina’s support for the treaty was a mixed bag. Sen. Kay Hagan voted for ratification while Sen. Richard Burr did not. I am hopeful that Sen. Burr will rethink his position about the utility of nuclear weapons and that both of North Carolina’s senators will make the right choices when the next votes are in front of them. As a country, we have options to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons and reduce their economic footprint. Our pocketbooks and our safety depend on making the right choices.