Fact Check

A False Nuclear Alarm

Debunking the Wall Street Journal's radioactive scaremongering.

Michael Smith/Getty Images
Michael Smith/Getty Images

With its latest editorial calling for more nuclear weapons and more weapons spending, the Wall Street Journal has gone over a journalistic cliff. The serious factual errors in its Jan. 5 screed, "A False Nuclear Start," raise serious questions about the newspaper’s credibility and integrity.

By claiming that U.S. nuclear weapons are in serious disrepair and that removing any of the 9,400 nuclear weapons in the arsenal would threaten national security, the Journal‘s editors help create public fear of changing obsolete Cold War nuclear policies. That fear could motivate senators to oppose U.S.-Russian efforts to decrease the number of weapons, convince them to increase from $54 billion a year the amount spent on nuclear weapons-related programs, and persuade voters that the U.S. president is weak, naive, and untrustworthy.

But to make their case, the editors have to make up their own facts. It’s hard to find a provably true statement anywhere in the editorial, but here are the three most blatant falsehoods.

First, the Journal claims: "The deteriorating U.S. nuclear arsenal is emerging as a big security problem." Not true. U.S. weapons are safe, secure, and effective. No science-based study has found otherwise. The most recent report from JASON — a premier U.S. defense advisory panel of scientists — found no evidence that aging posed any threat to the usability of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The JASON report said, "Lifetimes of today’s nuclear warheads could be extended for decades, with no anticipated loss in confidence." In an earlier study, JASON scientists found that the plutonium cores of these weapons are reliable for at least 100 years. In other words: The nukes are alright.

The U.S. government spends almost $6 billion a year on stockpile stewardship programs that maintain the massive nuclear arsenal. Some, like the Journal, want new facilities and new bomb production plants, but the Government Accountability Office has found that such plans would cost $150 billion. This is overkill.

Second, the editors say a letter from 41 senators promoting more spending on nuclear weapons programs means "Without modernization, it’s unlikely that Senators will vote for the significant and probably unwise reductions in U.S. nuclear delivery vehicles that Mr. Obama is negotiating with the Russians."

The letter says no such thing. It never says the senators will vote against the new START treaty. It simply expresses their concern that they do not believe "further reductions can be in the national security interest of the U.S. in the absence of a significant program to modernize our nuclear deterrent."

Policy experts, however, expect the new budget to be released in February to fully fund the nuclear weapons complex and support both the United States’ science-and-engineering base and its nuclear stockpile. Vice President Joe Biden — pilloried in the Journal‘s editorial — is personally leading this effort, meeting with the leaders of U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, military chiefs, and top experts to forge a budget and strategic consensus. This is hardly a secret. The facts could have been obtained with a simple phone call.

Third, to push for the production of brand-new nuclear weapons, the editors claim that the recent commission on U.S. strategic posture co-chaired by former defense secretaries William Perry and James Schlesinger said "the U.S. needs new warheads" and that the National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 requires the president to present a budget with funds for modernizing new nuclear forces.

Neither is true. I was a member of the expert  group that advised the Perry-Schlesinger commission. I have read each of the more than 100 recommendations. Nowhere does the commission say the United States needs new warheads. On the contrary, while the commission recommended an array of initiatives to maintain the nuclear arsenal under current U.S. policies, it found that, "The Life Extension Program has to date been effective in dealing with the problem of modernizing the arsenal."

Moreover, the commission strongly supported a new START treaty:

The moment appears ripe for a renewal of arms control with Russia, and this bodes well for a continued reduction in the nuclear arsenal. The United States and Russia should pursue a step-by-step approach and take a modest first step to ensure that there is a successor to START I when it expires at the end of 2009.

The Journal is wrong to frame this issue as a liberal-conservative divide. There is, in fact, a broad, bipartisan consensus on a new nuclear security strategy that would prevent nuclear terrorism, prevent new nuclear-armed nations, and steadily reduce Cold War nuclear weapons stockpiles. Many conservatives support an approach that would maintain a safe, secure, and effective nuclear arsenal for as long as nuclear weapons are needed.

The current policy is to do exactly this, but the Journal‘s editors are pushing a far-right strategy to build and test new nuclear weapons. This would break U.S. commitments, bring down the global nonproliferation regime, and increase the threats to America.

There is one thing the Journal got right: It is time to choose.

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