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Posturing on Plutonium

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There have been so many bad proposals on defense issues thrown around in the House of Representatives lately it's hard to know where to start. Build a costly, unworkable missile defense system on the East Coast? Check. Try to undermine the President's ability to implement the New START treaty, which calls for mutual reductions in U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenal? Check. Fund a new facility to increase capabilities to make plutonium components of nuclear warheads? Check.

All of these proposals -- advanced under the "leadership" of Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH) -- would take us back to the worst days of the Cold War, when political posturing and inflated fears drove a dangerous, costly, and counterproductive arms race. It's as if the last three decades of nuclear arms reductions -- begun under the Republican right's favorite icon, Ronald Reagan -- had never occurred. Or that we didn't have record deficits. Or that our most urgent security threats didn't involve stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, not keeping open the possibility of building more.

Hopefully, the most absurd of these initiatives -- like "missile defense, Jersey Shore edition" -- will collapse under their own weight. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be vigorously opposed. Stranger things have happened.

But the worst idea of all may be the most arcane -- restoring funding for a facility known as the Chemical and Metallurgy Research Replacement Facility (CMRR). The purpose of the facility is to help expand the capacity to build "pits," the plutonium components that help trigger the nuclear reaction in a hydrogen bomb. There are already ample facilities to produce more of these -- which we should not be building in the first place in an era when nuclear arsenals should be going down, not up.

The Obama administration took an important first step by zeroing out funding for the CMRR facility in this year's budget proposal, a position that was supported by the House Energy and Water Subcommittee, which has primary jurisdiction over the Department of Energy's nuclear warhead complex. But this sensible step was too much to bear for Rep. Turner and his allies like House Armed Services Committee Chair Howard P. "Buck" McKeon -- an arms industry booster who never met a weapons system he didn't like. If they had their way, we would expand our ability to build nuclear weapons and sustain it for decades, if not centuries, to come. Needless to say, this is not the greatest example to be setting when we're trying to persuade countries like Iran to forgo development of their own nuclear weapons.

The last thing we should be doing at this point in our history is indulging Turner's "proliferation posse." At a time when our safety depends on reducing global nuclear arsenals, their ideas are dangerous, unnecessary and unaffordable.