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6. U.S. Government Pushing Nuclear Revival


Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists
July/August 2001
Title: “The New-Nuke Chorus Tunes Up”
Author: Stephen I. Schwartz

Faculty Evaluator: Sasha Von Meier
Student Researcher: Erik Wagle

Corporate News Coverage:
Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2002.
USA Today, March 18, 2002.

The US Government is blazing a trail of nuclear weapon revival leading to global nuclear dominance. A nuke-revival group, supported by people like Stephen Younger, Associate Director for Nuclear Weapons at Los Alamos, proposes a “mini-nuke” capable of burrowing into underground weapon supplies and unleashing a small, but contained nuclear explosion. This weapons advocacy group is comprised of nuclear scientists, Department of Energy (DoE) officials, right wing analysts, former government officials, and a congressionally appointed over-sight panel. The group wants to ensure that the U.S. continues to develop nuclear capacity into the next half century.

Achieving this goal of nuclear dominance will take far more than just refurbishing existing weapons and developing new ones. A decade long effort, that would cost in the $8 billion range, would be needed just to bring old production sites up to standard. Billions more would be needed to produce and maintain a new generation of nuclear weapons. This plan has not been presented to the public for their consideration or approval.

Part of the plan includes the building of “mini-nukes,” which would have a highly accurate ability to penetrate underground stockpiles of weapons and command centers. The recent interest in such weapons is based on two premises. First, the belief that only nuclear weapons can destroy these underground networks, so the “mini-nuke” would deter other countries from using these underground systems. Second, these new bombs would give government the option to launch a nuclear strike to take out a small target while delivering minimal civilian casualties. It is believed that these bombs could specifically target underground headquarters or weapon stockpiles in Korea, Iraq, or Iran.

Princeton theoretical physicist Robert W. Nelson has studied the question for the Federation of American Scientists. Nelson concluded, “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 massive crater of radioactive dirt, which rains down on the local region with an especially intense and deadly fallout.” Nelson used data from the Plowshares program of the 1960s and from the 828 underground nuclear tests conducted in Nevada. The two sources show that full containment of a 5-kiloton explosion is only possible at 650 feet or more, while a 1-kiloton explosion must take place at least 450 feet into the earth. These figures are taken at optimum conditions, where weapons are placed in a specially sealed shaft in a well understood geological environment. The “mini-nukes” will be expected to penetrate into deeply hardened targets in unyielding conditions. Nelson also concludes that a 10-foot missile could only be expected to penetrate 100 feet into concrete and steel, a depth far too shallow to contain even a very small explosion.

The Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the United States Nuclear Stockpile has recommended spending $4 billion to $6 billion over the next decade to restore the production capabilities of plutonium pit plants in the U.S. The DoE is currently spending $147 million on pit production at Los Alamos this year and is requesting $218 million for 2002. A renovated Los Alamos will be capable of producing up to 20 pits a year by 2007. Last year the DoE received $2 million to design a new pit plant capable of producing 450 cores of plutonium a year. This would generate approximately half the amount of plutonium produced during the latter period of the Cold War. The facilities at some of these nuclear production plants are in drastic states of disrepair.

Only 26 percent of the weapons complex buildings are in excellent or good condition. One laboratory building at Los Alamos wraps pipes carrying radioactive waste in plastic bags to prevent leakage. The roofs at other facilities are allowing rainwater to seep into the rooms where nuclear weapons are inspected and repaired.

UPDATE BY AUTHOR STEPHEN I. SCHWARTZ: I wrote this article to alert our readership, the news media, and the general public that notwithstanding the end of the Cold War and President Bush’s pronouncements about abandoning the concept of mutual assured destruction, powerful elements in the U.S. scientific and policy communities are hard at work developing the next generation of nuclear weapons.

Since the article was published, there have been many new developments. The congressionally mandated study on destroying hardened targets, never formally released but obtained by an anti-nuclear organization and posted on the Internet in December 2001, did not explicitly call for new nuclear weapons, but noted that such weapons were the only way to defeat certain types of targets. The Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, the details of which were leaked to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times in early March 2002, alarmed many observers by broadening the circumstances under which U.S. nuclear weapons might be used. It also called for modifying nuclear weapons to destroy underground targets, for developing “nuclear weapons better suited to the nation’s needs,” and for reducing the amount of time required to resume nuclear testing. The Washington Post subsequently reported that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to explore the use of nuclear weapons in a missile defense system, a move hearkening back to the Safeguard system of the late 1960s and early 1970s when, coincidentally or not, Rumsfeld served as defense secretary under president Gerald Ford. In addition, the Foster Panel issued its third report in mid-March, once again raising questions about the long-term viability of the stockpile stewardship program and supporting a reduction in the amount of time necessary to resume nuclear testing.

On May 9, the House of Representatives refused, by a 243 to 171 vote, to eliminate all funding for earth penetrating nuclear weapons from the fiscal 2003 defense authorization bill. That same day, however, the Senate Armed Services Committee eliminated funding for such weapons and further required the Department of Energy to “clearly and specifically identify any funds requested in the future for new or modified nuclear weapons” and report on the requirements for any such weapons. The different versions of the defense bill will have to be reconciled by a conference committee later this summer.

There was no response to this story in the mainstream press during 2001. But since the disclosure of the Nuclear Posture Review in March 2002, I have spoken with numerous print and broadcast journalists and elements of the story have appeared in, among others, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Kansas City Star, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian (London), as well as a report on NPR’s All Things Considered. In addition, Popular Mechanics is preparing an article on bunker-busting nuclear weapons and 60 Minutes is exploring a possible segment on the nuclear revival.

Readers interested in further information are advised to read the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which will be publishing periodic updates as warranted (one appeared in the May/June 2002 issue). Visit the Bulletin’s web site at

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