new nukes

Les Schaffer schaffer at
Tue May 20 11:55:15 MDT 2003

Pentagon Revamps Nuclear Doctrine

The US government's plan to overturn a ban on designing new nuclear
weapons is generating controversy.

The Department of Defense has asked Congress to abolish the
Spratt-Furse provision, a nine-year-old ban on developing new nuclear
weapons below 5-kiloton yields. Meanwhile, the Air Force has made a
bid for more funding for a separate, new high-yield nuclear weapon to
destroy deeply buried, hardened bunkers. The requests are part of the
Bush administration's 2004 budget proposal (see the story on page
30). The development of tactical nuclear weapons--high- or
low-yield--and the recent mandate that the US Strategic Command take
charge of the full range of warfare options for combating foreign
weapons of mass destruction increase the likelihood that nuclear
weapons will be used, say critics.

[ snip ]
Chilling effect?
The budget request states that the research ban has had a "chilling
effect" on weapons research "by impeding the ability of our scientists
and engineers to explore the full range of technical options. . . . It
is prudent national security policy not to foreclose exploration of
technical options that could strengthen our ability to deter, or
respond to, new or emerging threats."

Garwin strongly disagrees with this statement. The money would be
better spent, he says, on a detailed and objective analysis of the
effects following a nuclear weapon's destruction of a bunker full of
chemical or biological agents.


New or adapted weapons

Some 70 countries and more than 1000 known or suspected strategic
bunkers are mentioned in the NPR as targets for nuclear weapons. The
B61-11--currently the only nuclear weapon in the US arsenal capable of
destroying hardened bunkers--has a yield between 0.3 and 340 kilotons
and explodes 6 meters underground. The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator
(RNEP) that the air force hopes to develop would penetrate 30 meters
before exploding, causing shock waves that would reach bunkers more
than 300 meters beneath the surface. The RNEP would be based on the
B61-11, and the air force wants the yield of the new weapon to be
similarly variable: An RNEP yield below 5 kilotons would allow troops
to move through an area after an explosion and receive minimum
radiation poisoning. Research into the RNEP low-yield option is one
reason the air force has asked that the Spratt-Furse provision be

In principle, assuming the RNEP explodes in a bunker containing
biological or chemical weapons, it would generate temperatures
exceeding 1000°C and neutralize the agents. But independent research
on nuclear bunker busters suggests otherwise. "They are not reliably
effective in that use," says May. Robert Nelson, a theoretical
physicist at Princeton University who works in technical arms control
and nonproliferation, says that highly radioactive fallout would be
spread over several kilometers by irradiated dirt and debris thrown up
from the underground explosion or that a near miss might spread the
very chemical or biological weapons meant for destruction. Although
the RNEP has been discussed since the early 1990s, Congress only
recently approved legislation. President Bush signed that bill into
law on 20 February.

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