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Scientists consider new breed of nuke
9 December 2000
Some U.S. military officials, nuclear scientists and members of Congress say the United States must soon develop a new kind of low-yield nuclear weapon - a mini-nuke that could burrow into the earth to blow up an underground bunker filled with chemical or biological weapons.
Despite a federal law that forbids development of mini-nukes, Los Alamos National Laboratory weapons chief Stephen Younger released a paper this summer saying he thinks the nation will need precise, low-yield weapons and should consider building them.
It appears some senators agree. They might push for a change to the 1994 federal law that prohibits the design and manufacture of mini-nukes.
But for now Congress has agreed to authorize $6 million for a study by the Energy and Defense departments of the feasibility of using low-yield weapons to attack hardened and buried targets.
The Defense Authorization Act, passed in October, says the study must be completed by next July.
It's not clear whether Younger or other LANL weapons managers will be involved with that study. But if the United States decided to build mini-nukes, experts say it's likely they would be partially built in Los Alamos because the lab is capable of producing nuclear pits - the fissioning cores of nuclear bombs.
Some peace activists are worried that recent developments indicate a shifting attitude in Congress and the U.S. government toward another arms.
"It's not a huge change in policy, but t is a shift," said Greg Mello, director of the Los Alamos Study Group, a lab watchdog. "It gives newfound legitimacy to this effort."
Mello said it's likely any report that emerges next summer will say the nited States needs the low-yield weapons, "and then they can use this port in the future so they can keep going."
The case for mini-nukes
The military has documented well its need for a mini-nuke, or conventional low-yield, earth-penetrating weapon.
And Defense Department planning documents released to a California anti-nuclear group, the Western States Legal Foundation, last month indicate that the military is eager for lab scientists to study low-yield weapons against buried targets and is planning tests of how weapons behave in underground tunnels.
Although the United States has about 5,000 high-yield nuclear weapons in its stockpile - plenty to deter aggression from major nuclear powers such as China or Russia - military experts worry that rogue nations such as Iraq aren't threatened by those bombs because it's so unlikely they would be used.
But a mini-nuke - which is expected to cause less collateral damage, fewer fatalities and reduced radioactive fallout - might present more of a threat. While its explosive power would not be nearly as strong as most of the nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile, it could be more precisely targeted to an enemy bunker or facility.
Technically, a mini-nuke is a nuclear bomb that carries about 100 tons of explosive power. According to a 1991 article in the military journal Strategic Review, the United States had plans for a 10-ton "micronuke" and a 1,000-ton "tiny nuke." By comparison, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was 13,000 tons.
Weapons now in the nuclear stockpile are all larger than 5,000 tons; the 1994 Congressional prohibition covered any weapon that exploded at less than 5,000 tons.
However, even a 10-ton micronuke would pack a punch 10 times bigger than the largest non-nuclear bombs dropped by the United States during the Persian Gulf War.
The weapons community began thinking about low-yield weapons directed at underground targets - or at above-ground targets where low collateral damage and fallout was desirable - after the Persian Gulf War ended with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein still in power. LANL abandoned Project "Plywood" (PLYWD, or Precision Low-Yield Weapon Development), when Congress forbade the Department of Energy to do any work on low-yield weapons. According to LANL spokesman Jim Danneskiold, the lab "is not working right now on any low-yield weapons."
A new nuclear bomb has not been built in the United States since the 1980s, and no nuclear testing has been done in about a decade. But the government spends about $4.5 billion a year maintaining the nuclear stockpile and building facilities to simulate nuclear blasts to replace live nuclear testing.
Sam Cohen, one of the scientists who designed the original neutron bomb - a low-yield nuclear weapon - said the United States desperately needs the mini-nukes in its stockpile and thinks American lives would have been spared if mini-nukes had been used in the Korean and Vietnam wars, as well as the Persian Gulf War.
But he doesn't think the United States will ever use one of the weapons.
"In that sense, it's a colossal waste of taxpayer money" to even study the issue, Cohen said.
An aide for Sen. Wayne Allard, R.-Colo., who spoke on condition he not be identified by name said the senators pushing for a study of low-yield weapons only want the Energy Department to be more free to talk with the military about its needs.
Allard was one of the sponsors of the original legislation asking for a repeal of the 1994 ban on low-yield nuclear weapons. He voted in favor of spending $6 million for a study on the topic.
"People have been saying this will lead to a new weapon," the Allard aide explained. "But this is just allowing them to talk about low-yield weapons ... even conventional ones. We could do a study on building a rainforest in Washington, D.C., and that doesn't mean you're going to get a rainforest there."
Another arms race?
Others say the push for low-yield weapons is a sign that the United States isn't taking its treaty obligations seriously and indicates a deep need for a national discussion on nuclear policy.
Those who oppose mini-nukes argue that by agreeing to new nuclear weapons, the United States is violating disarmament treaties and could provoke other nations into another arms race.
"The military clearly is thinking about this," said Andy Lichterman, program director for Western States Legal Foundation. "I would say that the ban on mini-nuke development is under attack, and there's a danger that the (new law) authorizing this study will be taken as a license to work on new nuclear weapons."
Mello said the nuclear-weapons labs push for mini-nukes and other weapons projects simply because they have no defined mission since nuclear weapons are worthless. "They need a raison d'etre," Mello said. "This is about their long-term legitimacy problem."
William Arkin, a disarmament advocate and columnist on military issues for The Washington Post, says hype over mini-nukes is - more than anything - a distraction from real nuclear issues that politicians and others want to avoid, such as the lack of a solid U.S. nuclear policy.
During the presidential campaign, Texas Gov. George W. Bush indicated that if he were elected, the government would review its nuclear posture. "And nothing is going to happen until that review is done," Arkin said.
"The Clinton administration has failed to determine what our nuclear policy should be," Arkin said, adding that until a new administration reviews the nation's nuclear posture, talk about mini-nukes is "nothing but agitation."
Arkin thinks a Bush administration - with Gen. Colin Powell as the likely secretary of state - would be more likely to advocate reductions in nuclear weapons and have more commitment to global-disarmament policies.
"In some cases, we should expect Bush will take more action regarding some of these irritating nuclear issues than a Gore camp ever would," he said.
Arkin said the Air Force and Navy need other weapons more than they need earth-penetrating mini-nukes.
In fact, the military already has some conventional weapons that can penetrate many feet of earth. The effort is toward bombs that are more precise or bombs that can burrow deeper.
The push for mini-nukes among nuclear scientists such as Younger is self-serving, he said.
"We can't have nuclear testing, we're losing scientists, and it would be a good morale booster (to be working on something new)," Arkin said. "Don't underestimate that factor. ... A new warhead is a new welfare project (for nuclear scientists)."
But LANL's Younger, who declined to be interviewed, has said his paper advocating low-yield weapons is simply an effort to get people talking about U.S. nuclear policy and what weapons will be needed in the future. "Now is the time to re-examine the role and composition of our nuclear forces," Younger wrote. "New technologies take at least a decade to move from the concept stage to the point where we can rely on them for our nation's defense."
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