Russia’s war in Ukraine raises the stakes of nuclear weapons policy in 2022 to heights not seen since the Cold War. In the midst of this global crisis, the Biden administration has completed a classified version of its Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) which lays out the administration’s approach to nuclear weapons. The unclassified version is now expected to be released sometime this fall. Since the first NPR in the 1990s, no administration has meaningfully engaged with the human and environmental costs of nuclear weapons or reckoned with the question of whether nuclear weapons actually make anyone safer. Nor has the government addressed the inherently white supremacist, imperialist, patriarchal nature of these weapons, which perpetuate a clear power differential not just between government and citizen but also between the nuclear powers and the rest of the world.
How is this possible? How can the administration of a duly elected president so blatantly ignore, with no apparent consequence, the security concerns of most people living in this nation? In short, our democracy is broken. Creating the NPR is a secretive and exclusionary process by design. A small group of unelected people led by the secretary of defense, rarely representative of the country, create an ideologically uniform document that serves to justify continued nuclear posturing. There is no accountability to voters or the public. Dissenters are eliminated.
President Biden’s NPR could be an NPR for the People. It could present a more comprehensive and inclusive view of true security. It could acknowledge the harm that US nuclear weapons have inflicted upon people in the US and around the world. It could take a true account of the costs and purported benefits of nuclear weapons that cost the United States millions of dollars every hour. While this may sound like a utopian vision for policy-making, an NPR for all people should be the norm, given the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons. Further, continuing to maintain and modernize a vast arsenal of weapons that could lead to catastrophic global famine and a return to the Ice Age is not “realistic” or “rational.”
Regardless, all the signs point to a Biden NPR that perpetuates an undemocratic status quo, fails to reckon with the harms of nuclear weapons, or meaningfully advances true human security.
The mere production and maintenance of nuclear weapons cause devastating illness and environmental pollution—without anyone’s ever dropping a bomb. And the impacts are most likely to be felt by women and children, who are disproportionately impacted by radiation exposure, and Black, brown, and Indigenous communities that are treated as dumping grounds for radioactive pollution.
The mining of uranium for nuclear weapons poisoned groundwaters for Indigenous people such as the Diné (Navajo) and Hopi in the southwest, leaving them without safe drinking water and causing generations of cancers and other health issues. Diné members working in the mines without proper protective gear were exposed to lethal amounts of radiation for decades.
The United States conducted over 1,000 nuclear tests within its borders and forcibly in other countries, like the Marshall Islands, with generational consequences. Lingering radiation prevents many Marshallese from returning to their homelands. For “downwinders”—people in the United States exposed to radiation as a result of living downwind of nuclear tests—it means begging the US government to do its job by extending and expanding compensation and support for impacted individuals via the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, now slated to expire in two years, after Congress recently passed a short-term extension.
An NPR for the People would reckon with the true cost of building and maintaining nuclear weapons and the harm it inflicts on individuals, communities, and the environment. It would create and propose restorative justice measures that would provide impacted communities with the compensation, resources, and support they need not just to survive but to thrive as human beings.
Despite his bold promises on the campaign trail, President Biden’s NPR is shaping up to look more like a Trump-era document than a reflection of the needs and expectations of the people he represents. Biden is spending more taxpayer dollars than his two recent predecessors on nuclear weapons, while underinvesting in solutions to real security concerns of those taxpayers, such as access to food and water, economic security, and safety from the many forms of violence that nuclear weapons cannot address. The Biden 2022 budget funds new nuclear weapons proposed by the Trump administration, old weapons the Obama administration planned to retire, and keeps the United States on track to spend more than $1.5 trillion on nuclear weapons over the next three decades. The Biden administration has chosen to bet everyone’s lives on nuclear weapons.
An NPR for the people would require a larger, more representative (diverse) and more accountable group of contributors. Opportunities for public input would be vital in developing a policy that represents the security concerns of everyone, not only of a privileged few.
What if an NPR for the People were to point toward a conclusion that nuclear weapons should not exist? Nuclear weapons are inflicting harm today and have been for years. They fail to address the real security concerns of most people. An NPR for the People should acknowledge these truths, and include language indicating that abolition is the ultimate goal. This would fall in line with US commitments under Article VI of the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons to make good-faith efforts toward complete disarmament. It would also address the undemocratic nature of nuclear weapons that eliminates the right to choose if you want to opt in to this doctrine of mass death flaunted as a “sane” nuclear strategy.
No US law requires an NPR, nor any specific process for creating one. The president could change an NPR, call for a new one, or revise the makeup of those included at any time. A president who is truly for the people, would demand an NPR for the People.