A look at world’s nuclear reality, 70 years after Hiroshima

JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to the president's visit to Hiroshima with a look at his nuclear legacy and at the ongoing threat from those weapons.

For that we turn to Stephen Rademaker, who was assistant secretary of state for arms control and nonproliferation during the George W. Bush administration, and Rachel Bronson, who is the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which focuses on nuclear weapons and disarmament.

And we welcome both of you to the program.

So, we did hear President Obama today in Japan repeating the goal that he laid out, he first laid out when he came into office. He said the nations that hold nuclear stockpiles must have the courage to pursue a world without them.

Rachel Bronson, how has the president done on that front?

RACHEL BRONSON, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: Well, I think the president started off very strong. Obviously, you mentioned his Prague speech in 2009.

But it's a strange bookmark to come out at the end of it today, towards the end of his administration. We have had enormous progress in the first part of his administration and much less in more recent years, so some big victories early on, I do think important agreements like New START and the Iran deal, but then slower progress in the last few years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How would you rate the president's progress on this, Stephen Rademaker?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER, Former Assistant Secretary of State: Well, I would say the goals that the president set for himself in the Prague speech were completely unrealistic, and so it's not surprising that, having confronted reality during the course of his administration, he's had to back down from those unrealistic aims.

Of course, he continues to articulate the abolition of nuclear weapons as a goal, but I think, unlike in 2009, when I think he was sincere and he really thought this was achievable, I think today he wants to abolish nuclear weapons in the same way that other politicians say they want to abolish poverty or eliminate drug addiction.

It's an aspiration, but not something that we — something we all understand is not going to be achieved anytime soon.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rachel Bronson, what should the president have done and what do you think his successor should be doing?

RACHEL BRONSON: Well, I think what he likely needs to do at this point is we need, as a country, to kind of take a look at this massive modernization program that the president is undertaking.

So, in an effort to reduce the number of nuclear weapons around the world, he kind of engaged with the Russians and signed an arms deal to help reduce what we had around — exactly what he had set out to do. But to get that, he had to make a deal, which was that he was going to invest in the modernization of our nuclear arsenal, which he has done.

But, looking at that very hard, what it begins to look like is not just modernization, not just keeping those weapons safe, so that we don't rust our way to disarmament, which would be very dangerous, but it seems like we're actually building a new fleet. And the kinds of money — the budget has ballooned, and so the next president is really going to have to take a hard look at how do we get back on pace to make sure that not only do we continue to decrease numbers, but that our arsenal isn't becoming stronger, bigger, you know, more threatening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Stephen Rademaker, how do you look at what the president should have done differently?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Well, if you accept the fantasy that we're about to abolish nuclear weapons, then, of course, spending a trillion dollars to modernize it is a waste of money.

But the reality is…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're coming at this from a very different direction from Ms. Bronson.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Of course.

The reality is, as the president has recognized, we're not about to eliminate nuclear weapons. They're going to be around for a long time, so it is necessary to make these investments in modernization.

And I know this number, $1 trillion, gets thrown around. If you want to deceptively present any budget number, you won't give the one-year number, you will give the 30-year number, because it's a vastly larger number. It basically works out to 5 percent of the defense budget, which, compared to the amount of money that we spent during the Cold War on nuclear weapons, is relatively small.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we're not going to resolve what the U.S. should do here.

But let's broaden this out just quickly. Rachel Bronson, when you compare where the world is today with where we were, say, 25 years ago, at the end of the Cold War, has there been progress made when it comes to nuclear weapons from your perspective or not?

RACHEL BRONSON: Yes, there certainly has been progress.

But just picking up on where Steve was, it is important to note that the military itself is beginning to balk at the price tag associated with this. And they are beginning to look at and say, it's not going to come out of our budget. It's got to come out of different pockets.

So they're balking too. These costs are really escalating. And it seems beyond our ability, A, to afford, or, if we are going to afford it, we're not going to be able to do other things that the military wants to do.

So, it's not just kind of where these numbers are. There is a lot of concern at what this is going to cost and at what cost to other kinds of tasks and other weapons that the U.S. might be want to be investing in. So I just think — I wanted to make that point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

RACHEL BRONSON: But in terms of where we are from the Cold War, we have seen massive reductions and important reductions.

We have also seen progress in beginning to move highly enriched uranium, plutonium out of certain countries. The president has done — has moved the needle positively in directions that have made the world safer, but, you know, this is a new world. And we're entering a new world where more countries have nuclear weapons, we have to worry about non-state actors who try to get their hands on them.

So in terms of a strategic threat, it's going down to some extent, but, you know, this is a new world, and we're in a very dangerous position. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sets the doomsday clock. And we moved it from five to three minutes to midnight two years ago, and we kept it this year at three minutes to midnight, because it's a very troubling time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me…

RACHEL BRONSON: We have deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia, and this modernization program is very concerning.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I'm sorry to interrupt, but I do want to get back to Stephen Rademaker on this.

You can respond to what she said. I don't think the two of you are going to come together, but in terms of whether the world is safer today than it was at the end of the Cold War, when the U.S. and the then Soviet Union were then armed to the teeth?

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: I think we're in a better place today than we were at the end of the Cold War, but let's be clear, there hasn't been much progress during the Obama administration on the elimination of nuclear weapons.

And I think Rachel would agree with me on that. In fact, actually, Russia deploys 200 more nuclear weapons today than it did when President Obama took office. That's according to the official data declarations.

China has recently started testing independently targetable reentry vehicles. It's deploying a mobile ICBM system. It just deployed within the last year its first operationally deployed submarine launch missiles. So, the Chinese nuclear threat is increasing significantly.

This is the basic problem with the agenda outlined by President Obama. He obviously believes in it with all his heart, but the rest of the world doesn't. He doesn't have a partner in Moscow willing to join him in this enterprise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a lot of big questions, and we wanted to take a look at it today, on this day the president visited Hiroshima.

Stephen Rademaker, we thank you. Rachel Bronson, thank you both.

RACHEL BRONSON: Thank you.

STEPHEN RADEMAKER: Thanks.

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