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ARLINGTON, Va. — President Barack Obama’s administration announced a “fundamental” shift in nuclear policy that top national security officials said on Tuesday makes it harder for the U.S. military to ever deploy a nuclear weapon again, especially in the new age of global terrorism.

The Nuclear Posture Review, a yearlong, government-wide study released Tuesday, cited a dramatically changed security environment since the Cold War for the administration’s decision to raise the requirements to deploy a city-leveling bomb. For the first time, the U.S. places off limits from nuclear attack those countries without nuclear weapons who have signed onto the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, even if they attack the U.S. with chemical or biological weapons.

The new rules state that only extreme circumstances would warrant consideration of a nuclear response. But the U.S. reserves the right to use all options, and the administration did not reject the “first strike” option to use nuclear weapons, disappointing arms control advocates hoping to relax tensions between nuclear powers and adversaries.

In a statement, Obama said the U.S. was taking “specific and concrete steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons while preserving our military superiority, deterring aggression and safeguarding the security of the American people.”

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, flanked at the Pentagon by Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Energy Secretary Steven Chu, said that after much discussion there was agreement within the administration that the world was not “far enough down the road” of global nonproliferation to eliminate the “first strike” option.

Instead, over the next several years, the U.S. will “modernize” its arsenal.

In the 72-page guidebook, which outlines everything from the size of nuclear warhead stockpiles to negotiating stances with Russia, the administration offers justification for pursuing a newer and “safer” arsenal of bombs and delivery vehicles.

The U.S. will not develop new warheads, Gates said, and it would replace existing weapons components only as a last resort.

America’s only nuclear peer, Russia, is no longer considered an adversary despite political differences, the report says, and the huge arsenal leftover from the Cold War is of little use in defending against threats such as suicide bombers.

“Today’s most immediate and extreme danger is nuclear terrorism,” the report reads. “Al Qaida and their extremist allies are seeking nuclear weapons. We must assume they would use such weapons if they managed to obtain them.”

Mullen said the new policy also focuses the U.S. on pursuing robust regional missile defenses and high-level dialogues with Russia and China.

The report notes that while China’s arsenal is relatively small, its lack of transparency regarding its nuclear program raises questions.

One watchdog group said the Obama administration’s rhetoric is welcomed but not backed by enough real changes.

“This review opens the door to transformational change to U.S. security policy, but doesn’t walk through it,” said Stephen Young, a Washington analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that advocates for reducing nuclear weapons.

Young said the U.S. could have vowed not to initiate nuclear warfare and done more to reduce stockpiles.

“There’s no reason for the U.S. to maintain thousands of warheads,” he said.

The announcement is a major step in Obama’s robust efforts to rein in nuclear weapons and restart Cold War-era nonproliferation agreements, an effort that began one year ago this week with his now-famous Prague speech. On Thursday, Obama will join European leaders in Prague again to sign a new strategic arms reduction treaty — or “New START” — with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. The treaty pledges to lower U.S. stockpiles within seven years by 50 percent to 1,550 warheads, 700 deployed delivery vehicles and 800 nondeployed ones.

Mullen called the reduction “one I wholly endorse.”

On April 12, a nuclear security summit will bring more than 40 heads of state to Washington, including Chinese President Hu Jintao, and additional nonproliferation talks are scheduled for May in New York.

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