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Obama's nuke-reduction goal is just the start of a slow process

President Barack Obama says he wants to reduce the number of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons by a third, but even if the Russians agree to do the same, it could be a decade or longer before the 500 or so U.S. warheads under discussion are actually destroyed.

A massive backlog at the Texas Pantex plant where nukes are dismantled means warheads removed from submarines and land-based missiles as a result of Obama's announcement Wednesday at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin are likely to wind up in storage, instead of disposal, for years to come, experts said.

And most of the U.S. arsenal — roughly 1,000 deployed warheads and more than 3,000 that are stockpiled, according to estimates by analysts — isn't even on the chopping block.

"This is a good new development," Hans Kristensen, director of the nuclear information project for the Federation of American Scientists, said of Obama's recommended cuts. 

"It's not something that fundamentally rocks the boat."

After decades of arms-control pacts, the number of warheads the U.S. has now is a fraction of the more than 22,000 that existed at the end of the Cold War.

Two years ago, there were more than 5,000 deployed, meaning they were ready to be launched on a few minutes' notice. The 2011 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction) treaty dictates that the U.S. and Russia cap the number at 1,550 by 2018, and Obama has been pushing for talks aimed at even deeper reductions.

"So far, the U.S. and Russia, in true diplomatic style, have been negotiating about negotiating," said James Acton, an expert on proliferation with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

What Obama did in his Berlin speech was set a numerical goal for Moscow to chew over, Acton said.

If the Russians concur — which analysts say probably won't become clear until the fall — the U.S. would then begin taking the weapons out of deployment.

The Navy has 14 nuke-launching submarines, Kristensen said. Each of the so-called Boomers can carry 24 Trident II D5 ballistic missiles equipped with multiple warheads. They operate out of bases in Kings Bay, Ga., and Bangor, Wash., but spend two-and-a-half months at a time hidden at sea.

Land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as ICBMs, are housed in silos around three Air Force Bases — Warren in Wyoming, Minot in North Dakota and Malmstrom in Montana.

Warheads are also kept on Air Force bases such as Barksdale in Louisiana and Whiteman in Missouri to be used on long-range bombers, analysts said, but Obama's target is less likely to affect them.

Undeployed warheads are found at storage facilities including Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, and there are six bases in Europe where the Air Force stores a much smaller number of tactical nukes, Kristensen said.

Physically removing the warheads is a painstaking process, but dismantling them could take far longer.

'Any change is always resisted'

The National Nuclear Security Administration said it expects to finish eliminating weapons that were retired before 2009 in 2022, even though it exceeded its dismantlement goal last year. Then, presumably, come the weapons retired since 2009, followed by any that the U.S. deep-sixes going forward.

The Pantex facility near Amarillo is responsible for deconstructing warheads, removing highly enriched uranium and plutonium and disposing of the material onsite before sending non-nuclear parts to other plants. Secondary systems go to the Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where uranium and plutonium are removed, some of them recycled as fuel for the Navy's at-sea reactors.

The missiles themselves can be trashed or repurposed as missile-defense interceptors or space launch vehicles, Acton said. Submarines would go out with fewer warheads, but the number of nuclear-armed boats in the fleet would likely stay the same, he said.

Steven Pifer, director of the Brookings Institution's Arms Control Initiative, said the backlog at Pantex -- which also builds, rehabs and recertifies warheads -- is understandable considering the nature of the work.

"When you take a nuclear weapon apart, you want to do it in a very careful way," he said.

The New START treaty doesn't require that warheads be destroyed. Theoretically, some could be set aside for possible use as replacements or redeployment in a crisis, though it would take days, if not longer, to install them again, the analysts said.

Given the overall size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, will getting rid of 500 weapons make a dent? Kristensen said that given the opposition to disarmament from some on Capitol Hill, a move by the administration to cut even 10 percent is "a big deal."

"Any change is always resisted," he said.

Pifer said junking 500-odd warheads when there are still a thousand more at the ready might not change the nuclear landscape but still constitutes "a pretty good cut." The real question, he said, is whether Russia and President Vladimir Putin will go for it.

"The Russians have not shown a great deal of public enthusiasm for further reductions so far," he said.

However, because Russia's arsenal is aging, if they balk at new caps they may be forced to start building new submarines and ICBMs to stay at current levels. So accepting Obama's initiative would be a money-saver, Pifer said.

A summit has been set for September, and the two nuclear powers could begin hashing out the math then.

"The question will be: Is Putin ready to deal?" Pifer said.

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