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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

New Nuclear Reality, New Challenges

The United States took another step toward eliminating the last vestiges of Cold War nuclear weapons production in May when the U.S. Energy Department awarded contracts for construction of fossil fuel power plants to replace three Russian nuclear reactors. These reactors produce not only heat and electricity but also weapons-grade plutonium, enough to build 1 1/2 nuclear weapons a day. When the new U.S.-financed power plants are constructed and the nuclear reactors shut down, weapons-grade plutonium will no longer be produced in Russia.

President George W. Bush is deeply committed to reducing the number of U.S. strategic nuclear warheads by two-thirds, and to preventing nuclear and radiological materials from falling into the hands of terrorists. This $466 million project is the latest advancement in an aggressive nonproliferation effort that has expanded from $800 million to $1.3 billion per year since the president took office. That's why I was perplexed during congressional debate on the defense budget by the hysterics over the $21 million that would allow our scientists to contemplate advanced weapons concepts that could be used to protect against 21st-century threats. (In all, some $6.4 billion in the budget is for Energy Department nuclear weapons programs.)

This funding should not have surprised anyone. It is the logical result of early Bush administration initiatives, endorsed by Congress, to conduct a thorough review of U.S. nuclear weapons policy. That review determined that the 21st-century national security environment differs greatly from that of the past half-century.

The challenges posed by rogue nations or terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction are strikingly different from that posed by the Soviet Union. Yet our best thinkers aren't being allowed to fully shift their focus from winning the Cold War to meeting new challenges.

We must move ahead to address one of the foremost military challenges identified in our recent review -- an enemy using hardened, deeply buried facilities to protect its weapons and other assets. We have just begun to explore whether modified existing warheads might be effective in attacking such targets.

We are not planning to resume testing; nor are we improving test readiness in order to develop new nuclear weapons. In fact, we are not planning to develop any new nuclear weapons at all. Our goal is to explore the full range of weapons concepts that could offer a credible deterrence and response to new and emerging threats as well as allow us to continue to assess the reliability of our stockpile without testing.

Our policies are designed to strengthen the deterrent value of our nuclear weapons so that they don't ever have to be used.

Spencer Abraham is U.S. energy secretary. He contributed this comment to The Washington Post.