Why US Lab Is Designing A Bomb No One Asked for Plan Could Threaten Nuclear Nonproliferation

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No one in the government asked for it and the Air Force says it does not need it.

Yet the Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, one of America's nuclear-weapons research facilities, is working on an atomic bomb that would have capabilities beyond those in the current United States arsenal.

The bomb, carrying an "old" nuclear explosive device and a new guidance system, would soar on wings like a glider after its release from a radar-dodging B-2 bomber. It would drill deep into earth or concrete, its explosion crushing "hardened" bunkers hundreds of feet below ground while causing little surface damage. The project symbolizes US determination to maintain the most- advanced arsenal possible absent global disarmament and amid rising concerns over a growth of deeply buried command-and-control and armsmaking complexes in Russia, Iran, Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. But it also comes as President Clinton is using American power and prestige to support global efforts to curb the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and reduce the number of nuclear warheads. Caught between these contradictory goals, the project, known as the Bomb Impact Optimization System (BIOS), embodies a fierce debate over the direction of post-cold-war US nuclear-arms policy. At issue is whether BIOS would breach a pledge not to design or build new warheads. If other countries perceive such a breach, they could be less willing to adhere to US-backed arms-control initiatives, some experts warn. "It is not in the best interest of the US if the rest of the world thinks it is still business as usual, as this will undermine support for nonproliferation," warns Jeremiah Sullivan, a University of Illinois physicist and member of the JASONS, independent experts who advise the government on nuclear-arms policy. "We don't need better nuclear weapons." BIOS raises other questions, including the accountability of the scientists, military officers, bureaucrats, and defense contractors who make up the nuclear-weapons complex. The complex is in the throes of a post-cold-war overhaul, and some experts have doubts about its willingness to stop after 50-plus years producing nuclear weapons. The way BIOS has been funded may fuel those concerns. While Sandia has spent $16 million since October 1995 on BIOS, the project has no separate listing in the budget of the Department of Energy (DOE), which runs the nuclear laboratories. Instead, the name of the account from which the funds have been drawn has been different for each of the past three fiscal years. The DOE is unable to say how much money it expects to spend on BIOS in the coming fiscal year. The nuclear-weapons complex has had a "history of fiscal inattention" and absence of sufficient executive-branch and congressional oversight, says Stephen Schwartz of the Brookings Institution in Washington. He recently completed the most comprehensive study ever of the costs of the US nuclear program. BIOS is still in the concept stage, although scientists have used a new computer-driven process to produce a prototype nose cone. That and other aspects of the program were briefly detailed by C. Paul Robinson, the head of Sandia, in a statement to a House subcommittee April 10. "Sandia is investigating the feasibility of modifying a B61 payload," Dr. Robinson said. "This effort includes analysis, design, model fabrication and testing, and ground and flight testing of a functional prototype." A safer version BIOS would be a follow-up to the B61-11, a conventionally dropped bunker-buster that replaced the B53 in February. The B53 is a 9,000-pound behemoth that produces a blast equivalent to 9 million tons of TNT, according to Pentagon sources. The government decided the stockpile of these bombs had become unsafe after some 30 years in the armory. By contrast, the B61-11 weighs 750 pounds. It is the atomic payload of an existing bomb "repackaged" inside a needle-nosed body made from depleted uranium, which is extremely hard and more dense than lead. …