RRW? What’s RRW?

By Jessica Wilbanks, November 6, 2007

I agree that it’s hardly surprising that the Bush administration’s proposal to develop new
nuclear warheads has only reached a small percentage of Americans.

After all, if the Energy Department didn’t want to draw attention to the rollout of the Reliable
Replacement Warhead (RRW) Program, they took the right steps–launching the public comment period
during the busy holiday season, using a euphemistic name that few Americans understand, and
downplaying the significance of the program to both the public and Congress.

Somewhat surprisingly, Energy officials have shied away from justifying the program by making
grandiose announcements about the future of nuclear weapons policy and the need for a strategic
nuclear deterrent. Except for a few boasts about the potential increase of nuclear warheads under
RRW, Energy has largely understated the program’s role. Instead, they’ve claimed that RRW is
necessary to modernize the nuclear weapons program, cut costs, create a more “environmentally
friendly” weapon, reduce the need for nuclear testing, and foster additional stockpile cuts.

Few members of the U.S. public would oppose a program meant to cut waste, reduce the need for
testing, and foster deeper cuts in the arsenal–that is, until they read between the lines. In
actuality, RRW would lead to the first new nuclear warhead in two decades, while Energy’s larger
plan for complex transformation would cost upwards of $150 billion between now and the year

As of yet, much of the U.S. public is unaware of RRW, and they’re not alone. Most members of
Congress could probably not parse the acronym. The fiscal year 2008 budget for RRW, which was
zeroed out in the House and remains to be finalized in the Senate, has been largely decided in
conference by bipartisan committees. Members of Congress serving on the committees were decidedly
cool toward the administration’s proposal and questioned the need to shore up the nuclear weapons
complex in the absence of a strategy for post-Cold War nuclear weapons. Instead, Congressional
leaders demanded that a bipartisan commission be created to fundamentally reassess the role of
nuclear weapons in a post-Cold War era.

Members of Congress are embracing what disarmament activists have long encouraged–a national
dialogue on U.S. nuclear weapons policy. As we embark on an election year and a new administration
enters office, we have a tremendous opportunity to bring about the kind of widescale national
dialogue on nuclear weapons that Lawrence Wittner refers to as taking place in the late 1950s or
the early 1980s.

These efforts are already underway and are having a great deal of success. I was impressed to
see that last year’s hearings on the program brought out a diverse crowd of old and young New
Mexicans who packed auditoriums and meetings rooms in four different locations to take advantage of
their three minutes of testimony. (Their comments, along with those from other states, are visible
.) Nearly everyone who testified spelled out the environmental and public health impacts
of the nuclear weapons facilities, as well as the effect of our nuclear weapons policies on
nonproliferation efforts.

Unfortunately, this recognition of the nuclear weapons complex’s dangers hasn’t yet trickled up
to all of our congressional leaders. But there are signs of hope. When New Mexico Republican Rep.
Heather Wilson reacted to the House’s funding cuts for RRW by pointing out that the decision to
block the program could lead to the abandonment of nuclear deterrence by the United States, she
didn’t receive much support from her colleagues. Perhaps that’s because a national debate on the
role of nuclear weapons could indeed be the first steps to a world without them. By demanding that
such a dialogue take place, members of Congress are putting into motion a process that could lead
to a massive paradigm shift. For the millions of Americans who oppose our nation’s reliance on
nuclear weapons, now is the moment to make our voices heard.


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