Curb Nuclear Weapons Excess

By Kimball, Daryl G. | Arms Control Today, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Curb Nuclear Weapons Excess


Kimball, Daryl G., Arms Control Today


More than a decade has passed since the end of the Cold War and President George H. W. Bush's 1992 decision to end the production of new nuclear weapons. Today, U.S. military might is unrivaled. By far, its greatest security challenge is stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and reducing the likelihood that they are someday used.

Yet, as the current Bush administration rightly calls on others to forswear nuclear weapons, it continues to pursue a costly and counterproductive campaign to research and develop new, more "usable" nuclear weapons. It also wants to significantly expand U.S. capabilities to build nuclear warheads. These moves run counter to accepted international norms of nonproliferation behavior and trends in military strategy that de-emphasize nuclear weapons.

The administration's fiscal year 2005 budget proposes 7 $27 million for ongoing research to modify existing types of high-yield nuclear weapons to destroy deeply buried and hardened targets (the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator). It seeks another $9 million for unspecified research on "advanced" concepts, including new types of low-yield nuclear bombs.

The rationale for the new weapons is based on flawed assumptions and ignores physics. According to a March report from the Departments of State, Energy, and Defense to Congress on the subject, the United States' concern for minimizing collateral damage in war diminishes the credibility of its capability and will to respond to "aggression" with nuclear weapons. By enhancing earth-penetrating capabilities and reducing yields, the argument goes, adversaries may believe than an American president might actually be willing to use nuclear weapons to take out leadership and weapons targets.

However, the notion that nuclear weapons can be developed to destroy targets with little collateral damage is highly misleading and dangerous. To contain the fallout of a relatively small, five-kiloton nuclear bomb, it would have to be detonated about 350 feet underground-nearly 10 times the depth that existing materials and force capabilities allow. Even if smaller weapons were used against suspected chemical or biological weapons sites, errors in intelligence and targeting could disperse rather than destroy deadly material.

The proposed Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator is far larger, with a yield likely more than 100 kilotons. A 1962 nuclear test blast of the same size, detonated 635 feet below the surface, ejected 12 million tons of earth and formed a crater 320 feet deep and 1,280 feet wide. …

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