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New Nukes, Anyone?

This May, before Congress adjourns for its Memorial Day recess, the Senate and House of Representatives are scheduled to vote on the annual defense authorization bill. This bill is expected to include several provisions in the Bush administration’s budget proposal that make preparations for the building of new nuclear weapons.

New nuclear weapons? Yes; there is no doubt about it. Armed with only 10,000 nuclear weapons, the U.S. government wants some more.

The Bush administration has requested $27.6 million to develop a nuclear "bunker buster," plus another $9 million for "advanced concept initiatives" that seem likely to include work on new, "small-yield" nuclear weapons. The President also proposes an allocation of $30 million toward building a $4 billion "Modern Pit Facility" that would churn out plutonium triggers for the explosion of thermonuclear weapons. And the administration wants another $30 million to dramatically reduce the time it would take to prepare for conducting nuclear test explosions.

Those who have followed the Bush administration’s pronouncements regarding nuclear weapons won’t be surprised by these proposals. The administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review widened U.S. nuclear options by suggesting possible use of nuclear weapons against countries that don’t possess them. The following year, the Nuclear Weapons Council, an administration committee, remarked that it would "be desirable to assess the potential benefits that could be obtained from a return to nuclear testing." In 2003, the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Security Administration began a study of building a nuclear "bunker buster," and the head of its nuclear division proposed taking advantage of the White House-prompted repeal of the Congressional ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, of course, the administration has scrapped the U.S. government’s long-term commitment to nuclear arms control and disarmament made in the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and reiterated as late as the NPT review conference in 2000 – by withdrawing from the 1972 ABM treaty and refusing to support ratification of the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

These shifts in nuclear policy are designed to get the U.S. armed forces ready to wage nuclear war. The Nuclear Posture Review made it clear not only that nuclear weapons would continue to "play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States," but that they would be employed with "greater flexibility" against "a wide range of target types." Strategic nuclear weapons were fine for deterrence purposes. But their capacity to annihilate vast numbers of people had horrified the public and, thus, had led government officials to write them off as useful war-fighting implements. Battered by popular protest, even the hawkish Ronald Reagan had agreed that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought." But this abandonment of nuclear options stuck in the craw of the militarists who garrison the Bush administration, who were (and are) determined to build "usable" nuclear weapons.

"Bunker buster" and low-yield nuclear weapons should be seen in this context. The former is designed to burrow into the ground to destroy military targets protected by rock or concrete. The latter – sometimes called "mini-nukes" – would also have greater utility on the battlefield than would larger nuclear weapons, with their vast, frightening destructiveness.

In fact, they would still be enormously destructive. Although advocates of the "bunker-buster" have claimed that this nuclear weapon – because it explodes underground – is a "clean" one, in reality it is quite deadly. The nuclear weapons that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki had explosive yields of from 14 to 21 kilotons; by contrast, the "bunker buster" has a yield of from several hundred kilotons to one megaton. If exploded underground, its effects would not be contained there. And if exploded in a city, it would create vast devastation through blast, fire, and radiation. As U.S. Senator Jack Reed observed: "These weapons will bust more than a bunker. The area of destruction will encompass an area the size of a city. They are really city breakers." Even the "mini-nukes" will create huge swathes of destruction where they are used, as well as vast clouds of radioactive nuclear debris that will drift for many miles on the wind until this radioactive fallout lands on innocent people below.

Furthermore, these "usable" nuclear weapons blur the dividing line between conventional war and nuclear war. Indeed, this is just what they are designed to do. And given the Bush administration’s penchant for waging war on the flimsiest of pretexts, it is hard to imagine that these weapons will not be used in the future – for "pre-emptive" wars or worse.

In addition, by building, testing, and using new nuclear weapons, the U.S. government will encourage other nations to do the same. At the least, building and testing the weapons will put the final nail in the coffin of efforts at nuclear arms control and disarmament. The U.S. government has not conducted nuclear tests since 1992 and was the leading force behind the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty of 1996, signed by President Clinton. When the U.S. government resumes its nuclear test explosions, that will certainly provide the signal for other nations to scrap that treaty and commence their own nuclear buildups.

Ironically, despite the Bush administration’s professed "war on terrorism," developing these new weapons will also sharply enhance terrorist dangers. Because of their small size, mini-nukes are relatively easy to steal and transport by terrorists. Indeed, what weapon of mass destruction would be more available and appealing to bloodthirsty fanatics – whether of the domestic or foreign variety – than the new nuclear weapons that the Bush administration plans to develop?

All in all, then, the Bush plan for building new nuclear weapons is a disaster. That Congress should even consider it seriously shows the degree to which this country has succumbed to the military madness fostered by the Bush administration.

Even so, all is not lost. In 2003, the Democrats in Congress put up a fairly good fight against the first stages of the Bush administration’s plan for new nuclear weapons – so good that, together with a some Republicans, they managed to block a number of the plan’s key features. This forced the administration to go back to Congress this year, to try again.

So the battle is joined – this month! If you sit it out and tamely let the Bush warriors get ready for nuclear war, you have no one but yourself to blame.

May 11, 2004