Future of nuclear policy and 2016 presidential candidates

The final communiqué of the Nuclear Security Summit 2014, held in The Hague, Netherlands

Photo: Sjoerd Hilckmann

On March 31-April 1, 2016, President Obama is hosting the fourth and final nuclear security summit at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, DC.The three previous summits held in Washington (2010), Seoul (2012), and The Hague (2014) highlighted international efforts to help prevent nuclear terrorism. President Obama during his electoral campaign in 2008 had stressed the ultimate goal of removing nuclear weapons from the planet. During President Obama’s speech in Prague in 2009, he identified nuclear terrorism as the ‘most immediate and extreme threat to global security’. While the Obama administration accelerated efforts to ‘secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years’, the initiative has registered scanty success. One can argue that the potential for the acquisition of nuclear materials by terrorist groups has been greatly reduced. However, there are still impending dangers of terrorist groups pursuing nuclear and radiological weapons highlighting the need for more work and global cooperation to secure vulnerable nuclear materials, break up black markets and detect and intercept illicitly trafficked materials.

Under the aegis of the Obama administration, the March Summit will continue discussion on the evolving threats and highlight steps that can be taken together to minimize the use of highly-enriched uranium, secure vulnerable materials, counter nuclear smuggling and deter, detect, and disrupt attempts at nuclear terrorism. As the 2016 US Presidential election season is underway, one of the most important political issues that America faces is determining a policy on nuclear weapons.What then are the US presidential candidates’ views on nuclear weapons and nuclear security? How do the US presidential candidates wish to address gaps in the field of nuclear security and strengthen the global nuclear security system?

Broadly, the US presidential candidates have expressed their views on two aspects of nuclear related issues – nuclear power and nuclear non-proliferation. However, issues related to nuclear security has been relatively absent from the presidential debates. When it comes to nuclear power, most candidates are in favour of incorporating it into the energy basket, but there remain variances about itssafety, efficiency and the way of treating nuclear waste. There are also differences where Democrats and Republicans stand when it comes to nuclear proliferation. The Democrats have stressed the need for the US to consider its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Former Secretary of State and democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton is rarely seen discussing nuclear issues as she claims to be “agnostic about nuclear power”. Clinton during the first 2016 Democratic Party debate brieflystated that the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the potential of nuclear material falling into wrong hands was the greatest threat to national security. On her website, she has sounded her policy of never allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapon. Her policy further states that America and its allies – especially Israel will be safer if nuclear agreement with Iran is vigorously enforced and implemented. On non-proliferation, Clinton said that she was skeptical about Obama’s estimated $1 trillion nuclear arms upgrade. She was also asked in Iowa if she would prefer more reductions between the U.S. and Russia to 1,000 nuclear weapons apiece to which Secretary Clinton responded by saying, “Absolutely. I mean that’s why I worked so hard on what’s called the New START Treaty. We gotta do more.”It is surprising that Clinton has not spoken on more substantial policy specifics on nuclear non-proliferation issues given her extensive experience with President Obama’s New START treaty that reduces nuclear missiles and has substantial spending cuts on the United States’ nuclear arsenal.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders has displayed much skepticism about nuclear energy. He believes that non-conventional energy – solar, wind, geothermal power – are more cost-effective and energy efficient than nuclear plants. While questioning the federal government’s investment of billions into federal subsidies for the nuclear industry, Sanders has maintained that the toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit. Both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have ambitious plans to shift the nation’s economy away from fossil fuels to clean energy to combat the global warming caused by their burning. However, the two candidates differ on where they stand when it comes to the use of nuclear energy. Sander’s staunch views against the use of nuclear power is opposed to Clinton’s view of preserving existing nuclear power plants and including new advanced reactors to help reduce carbon emissions.

The 2016 Republican Presidential candidates have avoided significant discussion of the issues of nuclear power and security. Lack of substantive discussion from the Republican candidates on this vital aspect of national security is alarming to say the least. Mostly, the GOP candidates have ignored the fact that the U.S. is already modernizing its nuclear arsenal and plans to replace all three legs of the nuclear triad of delivery systems and new nuclear bombs.  In reality, the U.S. is spending a total of about $35 billion per year on the nuclear arsenal. While Donald Trump during a debate was ignorant of what nuclear triad implied, Ohio Governor John Kasich had a muted positive response to Obama’s plan to modernize the nuclear triad. During October 2015, in a town hall meeting in Goffstown, NH, Governor John Kasich’s response to Obama’s $1 trillion plan was that America needs to be prepared and modernize nuclear fleet because nuclear weapons offer deterrence. Trump’s response so far on nuclear security has been,“With nuclear, the power, the devastation is very important to me.” Trump’s wildly inconsistent and unmoored vision for American influence and power in the world is well known. However, the open letter on Donald Trump from the GOP national security leaders failed to reflect on the abject lack of significant debate on nuclear security. Unfortunately, a poll in late October revealed that 34% of the Americans trust Donald Trump with the nuclear launch codes.

Trailing behind Donald Trump in polls –Ted Cruz believes in strengthening nuclear arsenal. He states that all the three legs of the triad are critically important however, the submarine aspect of the triad is the most important part of America’s nuclear arsenal. He places special emphasis on improving the submarines as they are the most important for projecting power and are the hardest to take out. On the campaign trail in New Hampshire, Ted Cruz added that the first obligation of the Commander-in-Chief is to keep the country safe with new major investments in missile defence. While the GOP candidates have in an inconsistent manner highlighted the need for nuclear weapons, quite disturbingly, hardly anyone has focused on the security and proliferation aspects. As the Nuclear Security Summit is underway, it would be interesting to note whether nuclear weapons and security appear more prominently on candidates’ radar as the subject so far has received dismal attention. American and global citizens deserve to know more about what candidates are thinking about the future of US nuclear policy.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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