'Bunker-buster' bombs set to end 10-year research ban
The United States is embarking on a multimillion-dollar expansion of its nuclear arsenal, prompting fears it may lead the world into a new arms race.
The Bush administration is pushing ahead with the development of a new generation of weapons, dubbed 'mini-nukes', that use nuclear warheads to penetrate underground bunkers.
Last week, it gave a quiet yet final go-ahead to a controversial research project into the bunker-buster. The move effectively ends a 10-year ban on research into 'low-yield' nuclear weapons. Critics fear it may lead other countries to push ahead with developing such weapons. It also comes at a highly sensitive time diplomatically, with the US lobbying countries such as Iran and North Korea to abandon their nuclear plans.
'The United States is spurring a new global arms race with our own development of a new generation of nuclear weapons,' said Democrat Ellen Tauscher, who led an unsuccessful bid in Congress to have the program scrapped.
The new warheads are designed to use shockwaves to destroy deep bunkers even if the bomb does not reach them. Experience in Afghanistan and Iraq has shown army planners that bunkers are being built deeper and more securely. 'We have to be able to match our capability to our potential targets,' one White House official said.
But critics say the weapons won't work and doubt claims that the radiation will remain underground.
The US Army plans to convert two existing nuclear bombs - the B61 and B83. The B61 can be dropped by B-52 bombers or F-16 jets. The larger B83 has explosive yields of one to two megatons. Research will focus on hardening the bomb casings so they can penetrate layers of steel, rock and concrete.
Anti-nuclear campaigners say the B83's large size makes its classification as a 'mini-nuke' debatable. 'The powers that be describe them as low-yield weapons. But that is far from the case,' said Jay Coghlan, director of Nukewatch.
Critics also question the wisdom of developing such weapons and say America's willingness to deploy them will blur the distinction between nuclear war and conventional conflict. Bob Schaeffer, of the Anti-Nuclear Alliance, said: 'It is dangerous and provocative. It is like a drunk preaching temperance to everyone else at the bar, while ordering another round.'
Leading Democrats contend that the development of the bunker-buster is part of a broader re-evaluation of America's nuclear arsenal by George Bush's administration. They point to signs that nuclear weapons are being given a prominent role in the post-Cold War world, at a time when many others see them as obsolete. 'This White House has a dramatically different view of nuclear weapons compared with previous administrations,' said Tauscher.
'The administration's actions are having the opposite effect by erasing the taboo on the use of nuclear weapons. Russia has already indicated that it will develop new "tactical" weapons in response and no one doubts our enemies will follow suit.'
Since Bush announced a 'nuclear posture review' after coming to office, the administration has taken several steps to develop and modernize its nuclear arsenal to deter a wide range of threats, including chemical and biological weapons and what the review called 'surprising military developments'.
Three Tennessee Valley power stations have been selected to resume production of tritium, a substance used to increase the yield from a nuclear blast. Tritium has not been actively produced in the US for years and this is the first time civilian power plants have been scheduled for military use.
In April, the Los Alamos military laboratory in New Mexico produced the first 'plutonium pit' in America for more than a decade. Plutonium pits are triggers vital to the production of nuclear weapons and officials are pushing to get funding to build an entire new facility.
Concern also surrounds plans to cut the time needed to bring American underground nuclear testing sites back into working condition. Currently the time needed would be 24 months, but the administration has pushed for funds to reduce that to 18 months. While officials insist the US has no plans to resume nuclear testing - which would breach an international ban - critics say the enhanced preparations for a resumption are worrying.
'Why are they even talking about this now, unless something is planned? It makes no sense to us. America has the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, but it did not stop 9/11,' said Schaeffer.
[Source: by Paul Harris, The Guardian, UK, 30nov03]
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