Even as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice condemns North Korea for threatening to test a new missile that could theoretically deliver a nuclear weapon to the Western Aleutians, the Pentagon is poised to develop its own new generation of nuclear-capable long-range delivery systems.

And while President Bush declares a nuclear-armed Iran would pose “a grave threat to the security of the world,” the United States is modernizing every weapon type in its vast nuclear arsenal, as Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos national laboratories pursue America’s own arms race.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was founded in 1952 to compete with Los Alamos to develop a hydrogen bomb, a bomb far more powerful than the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, under the “Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW) program, the labs are competing to design an entirely new warhead. Linton Brooks, head of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, has said that in 25 years our arsenal would largely consist of these replacement warheads, and “the weapons design community … revitalized by the RRW program” will be able to produce weapons with new military capabilities, “within three to four years of a decision.”

If you think this new arms race is endangering, not enhancing, our security, you’re in good company.

In June, an independent international commission, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, headed by former chief Iraq weapons inspector Hans Blix, released its report, “Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Arms.” The commission, whose members include former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, reminds us that the 27,000 existing nuclear weapons are “not an abstract theory,” and rejects the hypocritical view that nuclear weapons in the hands of some pose no threat, while in other hands they place the world in “mortal jeopardy.” The commission holds the United States largely responsible for the current nuclear crisis, in which threats of further proliferation to additional countries and possible terrorist acquisition are inextricably linked to threats from existing nuclear arsenals.

“Explanations by the nuclear-haves that the weapons are indispensable to defend their sovereignty are not the best way to convince other sovereign states to renounce the option,” states the commission’s June report. Reducing the threat and number of existing nuclear weapons — including the United States’ arsenal — “must be addressed with no less vigor than the question of the threat from additional weapons, whether in the hands of existing nuclear-weapon states, proliferating states or terrorists.”

Historically, the United States agreed to nuclear disarmament as matter of law, signing the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty. The treaty obligates the United States to end the arms race “at an early date” and negotiate, “in good faith,” the elimination of its nuclear arsenal. But although the treaty was extended indefinitely in 1995, President Bill Clinton reaffirmed threatened first-use of nuclear weapons as the “cornerstone” of U.S. national security in a 1997 directive.

At the 2000 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the nuclear weapon states, including the United States, committed to (under growing pressure from non-nuclear weapon states) an “unequivocal undertaking … to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals,” and “a diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk of their use and to facilitate the process of their total elimination.”

Then came Sept. 11, 2001.

The 2002 Nuclear Posture Review exposed U.S. plans for first-use of nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks or “surprising military developments,” and targeted Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, Russia, Syria and Libya. The 2002 U.S. National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction proclaimed “the right to respond with overwhelming force,” including “conventional and nuclear,” employed “in appropriate cases through pre-emptive measures.” By lowering the policy threshold for using nuclear weapons, walking away from tried-and-true arms control treaties, launching an illegal preventive attack on Iraq in the name of “disarmament,” and racing to build new nuclear warheads, we are seriously undermining international law and U.S. and global security.

Blix’s commission says any new research on nuclear weapons must be solely for “safety and security — and demonstrably so,” not for new military capabilities, as Linton Brooks envisions. I asked Blix recently whether the International Atomic Energy Agency should inspect the Livermore and Los Alamos labs to verify that the RRW program is “demonstrably” just for safety and security. He chuckled.

“We would be delighted if the IAEA would inspect Los Alamos,” he said, adding that, at a minimum, nuclear states must not give nuclear weapons new missions, and underscoring that the obligation to move away from nuclear weapons “should start with … the United States and Russia,” the biggest nuclear weapon states.

In other words, not only should we not pursue new nuclear weapons, but as the commission spells out in 60 recommendations, nuclear weapons must be outlawed and systematically eliminated, not just in “rogue” states, but everywhere, starting here.

Jacqueline Cabasso is executive director of the Western States Legal Foundation. This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and is reprinted by permission of the author.

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