On October 2, 1992, President George Bush signed into law a moratorium on nuclear testing. Now his son is preparing to end that moratorium.
The current Bush Administration is studying options for the development and production of a small, low-yield nuclear weapon called an earth-penetrator or bunker-buster, which would burrow into the ground and destroy a deeply buried hideaway of a "rogue" leader like Saddam Hussein.
But such a bomb would take many more people with it.
"The use of any nuclear weapon capable of destroying a buried target that is otherwise immune to conventional attack will necessarily produce enormous numbers of civilian casualties," writes Dr. Robert Nelson, a professor of theoretical science at Princeton University, in a recent study for the Federation of American Scientists. "No earth-burrowing missile can penetrate deep enough into the earth to contain an explosion with a nuclear yield even as small as 1 percent of the 15-kiloton Hiroshima weapon. The explosion simply blows out a crater of radioactive dirt, which rains down on the local region with an especially intense and deadly fallout."
The blast from one of these weapons would "knock down nearly all homes and apartments--and kill nearly all the people in them--out to distances of greater than half a mile from the blast," says Greg Mello, who directs the Los Alamos Study Group, a nuclear weapons policy research and education group based in Santa Fe. Those who survived the blast would suffer a lethal dose of radiation, he predicts. "To take a specific example," says Mello, "if the target in question were the Iraqi presidential bunker located in south-central Baghdad, there would be very roughly 20,000 people located within one-half mile of this target."
If the Bush Administration proceeds with the bunker-buster nuke, it would signal a frightening departure for U.S nuclear policy. The United States would be reneging on its pledge not to develop new nuclear weapons, and this would violate the spirit if not the letter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which are geared to the elimination of nuclear weapons, not the making of new ones.
What's more, it would, for the first time in almost fifteen years, confer legitimacy on the idea that nuclear weapons have a suitable role to play even in conventional warfare. This leaping of the firewall would increase the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used in the next decade or so. And it could turn a conventional war into a full-blown nuclear catastrophe.
But that's not how the bunker-buster would be sold. Chances are, it would be coupled with an announcement that the United States is reducing its strategic nuclear stockpile, which Bush pledged to do in the Presidential campaign. And we would hear how it is a designer weapon that is ideal for targeting "rogue" dictators.
"One senior adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that the Iraqi leader would not be deterred by current U.S. nuclear weapons 'because he knows a U.S. President would not drop a 100-kiloton bomb on Baghdad' and destroy the entire city," Walter Pincus of The Washington Post reported on April 15. The implication is that if the United States builds a bunker-buster, it would feel free to use the weapon.
Scientists at the nuclear labs, anxious to keep themselves busy, boast of how functional these weapons would be.
C. Paul Robinson, the president and director of the Sandia National Laboratory, this spring released a paper on the subject, entitled "Pursuing a New Nuclear Weapons Policy for the 21st Century." In it, he stresses the need for nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future and says low-yield--but not too low-yield--nukes are the way to go. "I believe that we would desire primarily low-yield weapons with highly accurate delivery systems for deterrence in the non-Russian world," Robinson argues. "Here, I'm not talking about sub-kiloton weapons (i.e., 'mini-nukes'), as some have advocated, but devices in the low-kiloton regime, in order to contemplate the destruction of some buried or hidden targets, while being mindful of the need to minimize collateral damage. I believe we can achieve the low-yield levels that are likely to be most appropriate for deterring wider threats, particularly if we are unable to design and test new weapons under a nuclear testing moratorium."
Robinson's faith in "highly accurate" bombs would surprise the families of the victims of the Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade or of the bombings in Iraq. "Highly accurate" bombs often miss their target.
But the drive for the bunker-buster is gaining momentum. Republican Senators John Warner of Virginia and Wayne Allard of Colorado added a provision to the 2001 defense authorization bill that requires the Departments of Energy and Defense to conduct a new study on the use of nuclear weapons in small-scale conventional conflicts against dictators who are holed up in "hard and deeply buried targets." The study is expected to appear in July.
This may lead to the undoing of a Congressional prohibition on testing new nuclear weapons. In 1993, Representatives Elizabeth Furse, Democrat of Oregon, and John Spratt Jr., Democrat of South Carolina, recognized that something had to be done to prevent the development of useable nuclear weapons. They wisely added a provision to the fiscal year 1994 defense authorization bill prohibiting nuclear laboratories from research and development that could lead to a low-yield nuclear weapon. Bush, Warner, and Allard are likely to favor legislation that would negate the Furse-Spratt provision.
The development of these bunker-buster weapons would jeopardize, not enhance, U.S. security. It would give a further incentive to Russia to cling to its own extremely problematic tactical nuclear arsenal. It would compel other countries to embark upon their own programs and increase the perceived need to join the nuclear club. The small size and portability of these weapons would increase their vulnerability to theft by nonnuclear states and potential nuclear terrorists. And if the United States used these weapons against a nuclear power or an ally of a nuclear power, it would be toying with all-out nuclear war.
Plus, the very way these weapons would be used in battle adds to the potential for unauthorized or accidental use. Unlike strategic nuclear weapons, these smaller tactical nuclear weapons are deployed nearer the front line; they are far more susceptible to communications problems under crisis conditions, and they can be fired by a person in the field without going through the stringent safety precautions that govern the launch of strategic nuclear weapons.
The bunker-buster nuke lulls us into believing the dangerous and false notion that nuclear weapons can be used without posing a pernicious threat to human life and the environment. They cannot.
The path toward greater U.S. security is through cooperative measures of disarmament, not unilateral acts of rearmament. The last thing we need is a new kind of nuclear weapon.
Alistair Millar heads the Washington office of the Fourth Freedom Forum, a peace and disarmament group based in Goshen, Indiana.