Tiny nukes: big problem

Itsy bitsy Armageddons

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Feature story - 24 May, 2003
The US Senate has bowed to the Dr. Strangelove dream of Donald Rumsfeld, and lifted a ten-year-old ban on research and development of smaller battlefield nuclear weapons. The action paves the way for the creation of a whole new range of numerous small, "usable" nuclear weapons.

Ooops. This 'underground' nuclear test in 1970 went badly. A ten-kiloton weapon, buried 900 feet in the ground, accidentally vented radiation 10,000 feet in the air, exposing test site employees and downwind communities to radioactive fallout.

Why is the Bush Administration moving ahead with research into the development of "mini nukes" -- 5 kiloton and smaller nuclear missiles -- and high-yield earth-penetrating "Bunker Busters" with nuclear warheads?

Mini-nukes won't limit radioactive falloutEven in the controlled environment of the Nevada Test Site, drilling rigs have to bury 5 kiloton warheads 650 feet in the ground in order to contain the radioactivity. Current earth penetration missile technology can reach 20 feet in dry earth from a height of 40,000 feet. And even if an earth penetrating weapon is aimed at a target that happens to be buried 650 feet in the earth, the chances of mishap are significant. Anything less than 230 feet of penetration, and a chimney of radioactivity gets sent skyward, along with vaporized earth and stone.

Mini-nukes won't limit the spread of nuclear weapons

If there is one lesson from the Cold War that we should have learned by now, it's that more nukes means more nukes.

As J. Peter Scoblic put it in the Washington Post, "Bush officials who support new nuclear weapons ought to heed an old cliché and put themselves in the shoes of their enemies. What would they recommend to their leader if faced with a United States that declared a doctrine of preemption, named countries against which it was prepared to use nuclear weapons and sought to build new nuclear weapons whose use would be more 'acceptable'? In that situation, I'd recommend immediately building a nuclear deterrent."

Sub-5 kiloton weapons that the US considers "acceptable" to use could mean a race for the small warheads among the existing nuclear powers, with more chances of transfer to new nuclear powers and "rogue" states. The lowering of the stigma to nuclear weapons use could have disastrous consequences for the nature of modern warfare. Bush spelled out the policy of pre-emptive use of nuclear weapons in the "nuclear posture review" in January 2002 and is now moving to put that policy in place with development of these new weapons. Already, the US is preparing to return to nuclear weapons testing in the Nevada desert, aiming to break the moratorium in place since 1992.

But the US is hoping that the international community doesn't take notice of this frightening shift in nuclear weapons policy. At the 28 April - 8 May meeting of signatories to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in Geneva, the US stated that "we are not developing new nuclear weapons. The United States has no current requirement for a new nuclear warhead. The United States has not lowered the threshold for nuclear weapons use." Delegates to the NPT meeting must now demand a full explanation as to why they were misled about the US plans for new nuclear weapons.

Mini-nukes won't discourage the use of nuclear weapons

In one of the most revealing statements about how the frustration of the weapons labs has driven the development of mini-nukes, Sandia Lab Director Paul Robinson declared that: "The U.S. will undoubtedly require a new nuclear weapon ... because it is realised that the yields of the weapons left over from the Cold War are too high for addressing the deterrence requirements of a multi polar, widely proliferated world. Without rectifying that situation, we would end up being self-deterred." All those missiles with no place to go.

Here at Greenpeace, we reckon self-deterrence is better than no deterrence. The self-deterrence that Robinson describes is based on the recognition that nuclear weapons carry an unacceptable level of environmental and civilian damage to be used. What the Bush administration is not accepting is that this is equally true for mini-nukes.

The use of any nuclear weapon in battle would break a 58 year taboo. The distinction between a small agent of the apocalypse and a large one would probably be lost on most people. Let's imagine: If North Korea fired a nuclear weapon at Alaska, but it was "only a small one," would the response of the United States be self-deterred restraint?

ACT NOW: Members of the US senate have the power to block the implementation of the legislation which allows development of the new "bunker busters." Let the Democratic Senators who are running for president against Bush in 2004 know that you want them to show global leadership and stand up to the Bush administration's nuclear nightmare:

Write to:

Senator John Kerry

Senator Joseph Lieberman

Senator James Edwards

Senator Bob Graham

For more information:

How Stuff Works: Bunker Busters.

Federation of American Scientists

You can click here to view a short movie about the development of the B-61, being modified as the "big bunker buster."

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