Published on Sunday, February 20, 2005 by the Toronto Star
Knocking on the Nuclear Door
by Lynda Hurst
In 1992, in the warm glow of the Cold War's end, the United States stopped making and testing nuclear arms, halting its arsenal at 10,000 warheads and pledging to cut back further still.
Four years later, it was the first country to sign the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty. But though committed to it in principle - certainly in regard to other nations - the U.S. wanted to keep its options open and, in 1999, to universal dismay, refused to ratify the treaty.
What happened on 9/11 could mean America never will ratify - or not, at least, while President George W. Bush holds office and the Republicans hold Congress.
Since the war on terror began, the headlines and billion-dollar budget allocations have focused on the missile-defence system and ever-smarter conventional bombs. But many security analysts say the Bush administration is quietly planning - in violation of the global non-proliferation treaty, which was ratified by the U.S. - to create and test new nuclear weapons.
If it proceeds, they say, a host of other nations are sure to follow suit, just as China did in signing but not ratifying the test ban treaty. The law of unintended consequences could then trigger a new arms race, even an atomic war.
"The public is just starting to become aware of all this, but other governments know and, in security circles, it's already out of the closet," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, the major anti-nuclear lobby in the United States.
Kimball is referring to two nuclear-linked programs that analysts say are not what the administration claims them to be.
The first is the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program. A budget of $9 million (all figures U.S.) was approved by Congress in November after it was cast by the White House as a research project on the "problem" of the aging nuclear arsenal.
Only there isn't a problem, says Kimball, not according to the bulk of scientific opinion, including that of the National Academy of Sciences, which advises the federal government.
"It's a misconception that the stockpile is decaying. That's deliberately being put out there by those who want to get rid of the testing ban."
The U.S. stopped explosion-testing its now 15- to 20-year-old warheads back in 1992. Instead, the inventory has been monitored annually through computer simulations conducted by the National Nuclear Security Administration's "stockpile stewardship" program. Weapons continue to be certified as safe and reliable. ("Reliable" in this context means that a bomb will detonate at the expected strength.)
Kimball says a warhead's non-nuclear components, the electronics and plastics, can wear out over time but can be replaced without testing.
What doesn't age is the nuclear core, or "pit," containing the plutonium and highly enriched uranium. "It remains unchanged for 50 to 60 years," Kimball says. "Even then, the pit can be remanufactured and replaced, again without testing."
Joe Cirincione, director of the non-proliferation program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the scientific consensus is that the current arsenal can be maintained indefinitely.
"At first blush, the argument that the warheads are wearing out sounds good, but it isn't so - they're making up the problems. There is no reason to go ahead with this program. It's politics; there is no scientific basis."
Cirincione says the research program is motivated by the career interests of hundreds of government-lab scientists. "I really mean that. We turned these guys on during the Cold War and never turned them off."
But it's not just them, he adds. There is a merger of interests with the more ideological members of the administration, including Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who fully supports the program.
"They believe we need a large, robust and flexible nuclear arsenal whether there is a threat to the U.S. or not," Cirincione says.
Indeed, the classified but leaked version of Bush's 2002 National Security Review reserved the right to act pre-emptively and "the right to respond with overwhelming force, including potentially nuclear weapons." The publicly released document used the phrasing, "including through resort to all of our options."
Put it all together, says Cirincione, and the warhead reliability program "looks like a back-door way of designing a new weapon. But we don't need a new warhead. We already have six basic designs, it's `dial-a-yield' as is."
The second project that has arms-control advocates and a growing number of U.S. politicians on alert is the three-year-old "Robust Earth Penetrator" program - a.k.a. the bunker buster.
After allocating $16.8 million to it since 2002, Congress pulled the plug on funding last year. It was concerned that the warhead is not what it has been portrayed as: namely, an old bomb in a different coat that can dive deep into the earth and, what's more, do it without having to be tested first.
"This is a new weapon," lobbyist Daryl Kimball says flatly. "It isn't a mini-nuke like people think. It's a city buster, not a bunker buster, and it would harm civilians and military personnel."
To the surprise of many, it was a Republican - David Hobson, chair of the energy appropriations subcommittee, which handles the $6 billion annual nuclear-complex budget - who cut off the money.
"Why are we still preparing to fight the last war?" Hobson asked in a recent speech.
"Developing new weapons for ill-defined future requirements is not what the nation needs at this time. What is needed, and what is absent, is leadership and fresh thinking regarding nuclear security and the future of the U.S. stockpile."
But this month, the Bush administration returned with another request for funding.
It is seeking approval for $8.5 million for fiscal year 2006 and $17.5 million for 2007, a move that will "unnecessarily and unwisely provoke another showdown with Congress over its dangerous ambitions," Kimball says.
Ostensibly, the program is trying to develop a new external casing for the B-83, a high-yield bomb, to enable it to penetrate and destroy underground or under-mountain enemy facilities - a lack in the arsenal that was identified by the Pentagon in its (classified but leaked) 2001 Nuclear Posture Review.
Analysts counter there isn't a casing in existence that can sustain driving a nuclear missile thousands of metres into the ground. At least not without spewing out tonnes of radioactive fallout - along with whatever chemical and biological agents it hits on - into the atmosphere.
The administration's additional claim that it can be achieved without testing is ludicrous, say critics, on two points: The military has never accepted a new warhead without testing, and the fact that the Nevada Test Site, unused for large-scale atomic testing since 1992, was suddenly allocated $22 million last year for "grooming."
Senior military officials, such as Adm. James Ellis, former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, have argued all along that a nuclear bunker buster simply isn't required.
Presuming they are located in the first place, underground labs can be sealed off with smart, precision-guided conventional weapons, he says.
One Democratic politician called the latest funding request a "waste of money on a weapon commanders in the field have not asked for, is of highly questionable utility and which may trigger a new global nuclear arms race."
The Carnegie Endowment's Cirincione predicts a bipartisan fight over the implications of the bunker buster program; whether it will hurt rather than help American security interests.
"The administration is not leaning on anyone ... yet, but this is going to be one of the most hotly debated items in Congress," he says.
Wesley Wark, an international security specialist at the University of Toronto, doesn't think the White House is planning to jump back into the arms race it has already decisively won.
Attention is centred elsewhere, he says: on testing the failure-plagued missile defence system and on keeping the lid on rogue states such as Iran and North Korea.
"Congress holds the whip hand and it knows that if the U.S. pushes forward on new weapons, others will see it as nuclear open season."
Even if the administration feels it has the right to do what it wants in the interests of national security, says Wark, "Bush worries about paying a proliferation price down the road. The last thing they want to do right now is go down that road."
Or as Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein, a leading opponent, recently put it:
"There are many of us who believe very passionately that we should not, should not, reopen the nuclear door."
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