Bush Administration Keen on New Nuclear Weapons
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, May 6, 2003 (ENS) - As U.S. officials struggle to deal with North Korea and its renegade nuclear program, the Senate Armed Services Committee is set to consider a Bush administration proposal to research new nuclear weapons and to reduce the preparation time for underground testing from three years to 18 months.
The proposal is one piece of the administration's nuclear weapons policy that critics believe blurs the line between the use of nuclear and conventional weapons and threatens to undermine the international effort to contain the world's development of nuclear weapons.
"A nuclear weapon is not just another item in our arsenal, and it is wrong to treat it like it is," Senator Ted Kennedy said last week at a panel discussion held by the nonpartisan Arms Control Association (ACA).
"We reap what we sow," said Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "If we brandish our own nuclear weapons, we only encourage other nations to develop their own."
Within its fiscal 2004 defense budget, the Bush administration has requested funding to shorten the prep time for testing and for research on nuclear bunker buster bombs as well as for the repeal of the 10 year old ban on research and development of low yield nuclear weapons less than five kilotons.
A five kiloton nuclear weapon is about half the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The Senate Armed Services Committee is scheduled to begin discussions of the 2004 defense budget today, although an early design contest has already been launched between federal research laboratories to outline plans for the nuclear bunker buster bomb.
Critics say that the administration's concept of modifying or developing nuclear weapons for use against deeply buried and hardened targets is not only misguided, but fundamentally flawed.
Low collateral, low yield bunker buster nuclear bombs are a "physical myth," said Sidney Drell, a nuclear physicist with Stanford University.
A nuclear weapon exploded just beneath the Earth's surface would create a massive crater and would throw more radioactive dirt and particles into the air than one detonated above the target, Drell explained.
For fallout to be contained, even a 0.5 kiloton nuclear weapon would have to penetrate at least 150 feet into the Earth in order for fallout to be contained, explained Matt McKinzie, a physicist with the Natural Resources Defense Council
But there is no known material that could be used to encase a bomb that could penetrate more than 50 feet, Drell said, "even if we slam them in at supersonic speeds."
And even if there was such a material, Drell explained, the bunkers the administration is concerned about would require a nuclear weapon of more than 100 kilotons.
"To contain 100 kilotons or so, you would have to detonate the weapon more than 1,000 feet below ground," said Drell.
Critics of the administration say the war in Iraq underscores the view that the U.S. has nothing to gain, but a lot to lose, from developing the low yield nuclear weapons currently banned by Congress.
Precision guided munitions and standoff weapons currently in the U.S. arsenal make these "mini nukes unnecessary," Kennedy said.
Developing these capabilities would "offer the United States no decisive military advantage while having potentially grave repercussions for U.S. interests around the world," said Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat.
"The political effects of U.S. pursuit of new nuclear weapons could well be to legitimize nuclear weapons, and U.S. nuclear planning could serve as a pretext for other countries and, worse, terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, to build or acquire their own bombs."
The request for funding to shorten the time it would take to prepare for underground testing also sends the wrong message to the international community, Drell told attendees at ACA's discussion, in particular in light of other administration policies that appear to blur the lines between use of nuclear and conventional weapons.
A policy document released by the administration in December 2002 outlined that the administration would consider using nuclear weapons in response to chemical or biological threats and officials have indicated that nuclear weapons could be used against hostile nations such as North Korea, Iran, Syria and Libya.
Kennedy says the administration's proposals send the wrong message to the international community just as the world is wrestling with growing fears of nuclear proliferation.
Instead of seeking to develop new weapons, Kennedy says the administration should be doing more to ensure that existing stockpiles - in particular in Russia - do not fall into the hands of terrorists.
"There is hundreds of tons of material in the former Soviet Union," Drell explained. "Those are the greatest threats we face, and here we are spending less than one-third of one percent of our defense budget on that problem. That is terribly out of whack."
The administration is sending mixed messages about its nuclear weapons policy, added ACA executive director Darryl Kimball. Its Nuclear Posture Review calls for the U.S. should minimize the role of nuclear weapons, as did the head of the U.S. Strategic Command in recent Congressional testimony.
But the same document calls for the development of these new capabilities.
"The Bush administration is Jekyll and Hyde on this subject," Kimball said.
The policy could put additional strain on international accords to prevent non proliferation at critical time, even as this framework has proven to be effective, according to Drell.
Only eight out of 189 nations are known to have nuclear weapons today, Drell said, "a far small number was thought to be the case as one looked at prospects 40, 30 years ago."
Four nuclear powers are not party to the Nonproliferation Treaty - India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan.
"It would be fair to say that the further U.S. pursuit of new types of nuclear weapons or modifications, whether they are high-yield or low-yield, would complicate efforts to try to deal with the tactical weapons in the former Soviet Union," said Kimball.
In addition, the Moscow Treaty, ratified by the Senate in March, calls for the U.S. and Russia to reduce their number of deployed warheads - under the accord, the current U.S. total of 6,000 and the Russian stockpile of 5,000 strategic nuclear warheads will be cut to no more than 2,220 each by the end of 2012.
In a paper submitted to the G-8, which is expected to discuss funding for non proliferation at its meeting in June, the Bush administration says it is not backing away from this commitment nor do its actions indicate a move to begin testing new weapons.
"Proposals exist to decrease the time that it would take to resume nuclear testing, were that ever to be necessary," according to the May 1 paper. "But that fact says nothing about the likelihood of a nuclear test. Nor does it relate to the development of a new nuclear weapon."
"Published reports that studies or contingency planning may be ongoing do not in any way represent a change in policy," the paper states. "Since the nuclear age began, all U.S. Presidents have demonstrated prudence with regard to nuclear weapons. The United States has an unparalleled conventional capability to defend our security. President Bush's policies are further reducing the extent to which we need to rely on nuclear weapons."
But this does little to ease fears by many that the Bush administration is sending the wrong signal on nuclear weapons. Critics believe that that if the U.S. is perceived to be actively seeking new weapons in its nuclear arsenal, it will be harder to convince others to halt their development.
"If we are not careful, our own nuclear posture could provoke the very nuclear-proliferation activities we are seeking to prevent," said Feinstein.