Double Speak: Despite the Talk of Disarmament, the US Is Developing New Nuclear Weapons

Article excerpt

IN THE PAST YEAR, reports of undisclosed uranium enrichment efforts by Iran and the discovery of a network trafficking in nuclear technologies, headed by Pakistan's chief nuclear scientist, showed a growing threat of nuclear proliferation. The International Atomic Energy Agency's inspections in Iraq prompted debate about whether Saddam Hussein was seeking nuclear weapons--this was one justification for pre-emptive war against Iraq. Much less attention has been given to the threats posed by weapons development among states already known to possess nuclear weapons, or to the gradual erosion of the multilateral arms control regime.

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The end of the Cold War brought with it hope that the nuclear threat had abated and that abolition was possible. Nuclear arsenals were reduced by about 70 percent through the 1990s, from a peak of some 65,000 operational weapons in 1986. But the nuclear legacy of the Cold War lingers. The United States and Russia retain arsenals totalling some 15,000 nuclear warheads, with thousands of strategic nuclear weapons on high alert, ready to be launched within a moment's notice. Although much has been made of the new security relationship between Russia and the US, the doctrine of deterrence remains in force.

Officially, the US is undertaking an aggressive campaign against further proliferation of nuclear weapons. It is promoting tighter export controls and measures to seize illicit nuclear materials in transport at sea. Negotiations are underway with Libya, Iran and North Korea to bring their nuclear programs to an end. Funding to secure nuclear sites and dismantle stockpiled weapons in Russia is another US priority to counter proliferation threats.

As the world's nuclear superpower, the US has the potential to either spur on nuclear disarmament or destabilize the world further. Despite its efforts to address proliferation concerns, the aggressive nuclear policy of the Bush administration is undermining real progress on disarmament.

In 1994, the US Congress approved a ban on research and development of nuclear weapons smaller than five kilotons (equivalent to the explosion of 5000 tons of TNT). These weapons are called "mini-nukes" because they are small in comparison to the Hiroshima bomb, which had a 12-kiloton yield, but the term is misleading. Although a low-yield nuclear explosion would have a lesser impact than the Hiroshima bomb, it can still cause immense localized destruction and long-term environmental devastation.

This ban was repealed in the 2004 budget and funding was allocated to research new mini-nuke technology under a line item called "Stockpile Services Advanced Concept Initiator." For 2005, the Pentagon has requested nine million dollars for work on these technologies.

The "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" was another line item to appear in the 2004 budget. Commonly called a bunker buster, this weapon is intended to burrow into the earth and destroy hardened and buried targets with a nuclear blast. It received research and development funding of $7.44 million in 2004. The funding request for the 2005 fiscal year is a whopping $27.58 million, an increase of over 250 percent.

Stanford physicist Sidney Drell and others argue that a penetrating nuclear weapon could not burrow deep enough for the radioactive soil and contamination of the blast to be contained underground. In 1962, a 104-kiloton nuclear weapon was tested 193 metres underground and the blast projected 12 million tons of radioactive soil and debris into the atmosphere. Even a small, one-kiloton nuclear warhead detonated 6 to 15 metres underground would leave a crater larger than a football field.

The United States also plans to build a new plant for the fabrication of "pits," the plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons. The proposed new Modern Pit Facility would have the capacity to build from 125 to as many as 900 pits a year, ostensibly to replace aging components of the current nuclear arsenal. …