Relearning to Love the Bomb
Just how far along is the government in building such weapons? The Energy Department's 2003 budget request calls for further studies of a "robust nuclear earth penetrator." In February Gen. John Gordon, an under secretary at the National Nuclear Security Administration, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his division of the DOE had already created work groups to develop atomic warheads. "The teams will carry out theoretical and engineering design work on one or more concepts, including options to modify existing designs or develop new ones," he said. "In some instances, these activities would proceed beyond the 'paper' stage and include a combination of component and subassembly tests."
Although the United States is not a signatory to any treaty preventing it from testing, Washington has imposed a nuclear testing moratorium on itself that is expected to expire in the next two years. Leaks from the classified Nuclear Posture Review indicate that this may be cut to a year or sooner. The government says testing is required to maintain the safety and reliability of an aging nuclear arsenal, but countless experts insist that this is simply not credible. "There is no scientific justification for testing for the safety of our arsenal," says Joseph Cirincione, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "The only reason you would need new tests is to verify new designs, new types of weapons, period."
This development parallels a program under way to build facilities for manufacturing plutonium pits, used in a warhead's trigger mechanism. Last July, funding for a "modern pit facility" was tripled, according to Nuclear Watch of New Mexico, a watchdog group. Yet even the Energy Department has stated that it does not currently believe the degeneration of plutonium pits in the existing arsenal "will become a problem in less than 50 years." Similarly, in late January the Tennessee Valley Authority approved $3.25 million toward the production of tritium, a gas used in nuclear weapons to make them lighter and smaller.
Both international and domestic law constrict the development of new mini-nukes. If the United States were to build a new atomic bomb, it would offend the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1994 Congress explicitly forbade the Energy Department from developing or researching the weapons because "low-yield nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war."
Indeed, the biggest problem with the idea of using new nuclear weapons may be moral rather than legal. As some scientists have pointed out, the notion that a small nuclear warhead could burrow into the earth and destroy a bunker without causing extensive damage above ground is flawed. Robert Nelson of the Federation of American Scientists argues that there is no way an atomic bomb could penetrate the earth deeply enough to contain the explosion, even if its yield were 1 percent of that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Such a bomb would create a fireball that would blast through the earth's surface, carrying a cloud of radioactive dirt and debris, according to Nelson, who notes that five-kiloton atomic bombs had to be detonated at the Nevada Test Site at a depth of 650 feet to be fully contained--far deeper than any mini-nuke could travel.
"Nuclear weapons as now designed and employed are essentially useless because you cannot cross this threshold between conventional and nuclear without being unequivocal about it: If you use a nuclear weapon, you're saying, 'We're now in nuclear phase,'" explains retired Rear Adm. Eugene Carroll. "Whereas these people say, 'Well, this new weapon is so little, and we can apply it so precisely, and it's for such a specific purpose that nobody can believe that we're being irresponsible or careless or radical in our use of such a wonderful little weapon.' But the truth is, the first use of nuclear explosives in warfare breaches the firewall, as some people call it, and when we go on beyond that, we're put at the mercy of the other side, which probably doesn't have such 'useful' or 'usable' weapons."