Published on Monday, October 16, 2000 in the Philadelphia Inquirer
Bill Would Give Push To 'Mini-Nukes'
The legislation would allow research of what critics call a "user-friendly" nuclear weapon.
by Steve Goldstein
WASHINGTON - Congress is poised to authorize research on a new generation of weaponry that includes low-yield nuclear devices known as "mini-nukes," which critics say could set off a fresh round of nuclear testing.
Opponents called the research plan the first step toward the development of a "user-friendly" nuclear weapon.
"The development and deployment of a weapon with a relatively small explosive yield would be extremely dangerous, precisely because the military would regard it as 'usable,' " said Martin Butcher of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a nonproliferation advocacy group.
The Pentagon and the Energy Department will study weapons designed to be used against "hardened" and deeply buried targets, such as missile silos, stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, or Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's command bunker.
The legislation, championed by leading Senate Republicans, is contained in the final 2001 defense authorization bill due to be approved by Congress this week.
In what antinuclear groups view as a partial victory, their backers in Congress added a time limit on the study to restrict the potential development of a new nuclear weapon.
"We've basically kicked the can down the road," said David Culp of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a lobbying group. "It means, for the next year, bad things are not going to happen."
Culp predicted the fate of mini-nukes would rest with a new administration.
"Gore probably wouldn't pursue it," he said, "but a Bush administration would likely continue the research."
The impetus for the provision on "mini-nukes" - defined as weapons of a yield of five kilotons or less - came in 1999, when the Pentagon asked for assistance from the Energy Department's weapons labs to develop devices that could defeat hardened and deeply buried targets.
At that time, Energy's general counsel ruled that a provision in a 1994 spending law barred the labs from the research and development of precision low-yield nuclear weapons.
This year, Sens. John Warner (R., Va.) and Wayne Allard (R., Colo.) sponsored a provision that was intended to overcome that legal obstacle. Their bill required the secretaries of defense and energy to conduct such a study and authorized the nuclear weapons labs to "conduct any limited research and development that may be necessary."
Warner urged the development of these new weapons, saying: "There is a dwindling industrial base and dwindling category of people to build weapons."
Other advocates of the mini-nukes contend that the United States is restricting its war-fighting options by having only large nuclear weapons in its arsenal.
Although the word nuclear did not appear in the legislation, it was understood that the research could include nuclear as well as conventional weapons.
Opponents of the bill were further alarmed by a discussion paper distributed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory last summer that said a five-kiloton nuclear device, with precision targeting, could destroy a bunker or hardened missile silo.
Stephen Younger, the lab's associate director of nuclear weapons, said low-yield weapons offered the advantage of "reduced collateral damage." That is, fewer people would be killed.
The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 had the power of 15 kilotons, or 15,000 tons of TNT. Some modern nuclear weapons have yields of more than 1,000 kilotons.
Foes of the legislation argued that the development of these mini-nukes could lead to new testing that would gut the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, already battered by its rejection in the Senate last year.
Low-yield nuclear weapons are controversial, moreover, because they are generally regarded as tactical or battlefield weapons, and thus more likely to be deployed. Existing nuclear weapons, with their immense destructive power and large-scale radiation consequences, are considered self-deterring.
In August, 26 Democrats sent a letter to Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, objecting to the provision and arguing that only conventional bombs should be considered in the study.
"The resumption of nuclear test explosions that will result from such a program involving nuclear weapons would increase rather than decrease our national security and undermine U.S. and international nonproliferation efforts," they wrote.
What resulted when Senate and House conferees met was a compromise: The research and development would be authorized, but only until July 1, 2001, when the report of the defense and energy secretaries would be due to Congress.
Both congressional staffers and the antinuclear lobbyists agreed that this deadline would severely curtail research into mini-nukes.
Furthermore, no money is specifically allocated for the study.
In the Senate version of the energy and water appropriations bill, $6 million was provided to the Energy Department for the purpose of studying weapons that could defeat hardened and buried targets. That money, known as an "earmark," was removed in the final version of the bill.
Thus, the research at the weapons labs will be conducted, but it will be more difficult to devote resources to the task - which heartens the antinuclear community.
Staff members of the Armed Services Committee have noted that the legislation merely seeks to see if additional technologies and capabilities are required for the task.
"We do have nuclear weapons that can do that job, but they are kind of a big stick," said a staffer who asked not be named.
The B-61 thermonuclear bomb, redesigned in the early '90s, has a 50-kiloton yield that can penetrate 100 meters into solid rock. A new weapon would ideally penetrate deeper.
One other "fail-safe" provision restricts the development of mini-nukes.
If a study does recommend building low-yield nuclear weapons, additional legislation would be required to overcome the original prohibition on such development. The ban was placed in the fiscal 1994 defense authorization act by then-Rep. Elizabeth Furse (D., Ore.) and Rep. John M. Spratt Jr. (D., N.C.).
"At the end of the day, that's why Spratt could live with this provision," said the staffer, who works for the House Armed Services Committee. "They might be able to bring mini-nukes to the brink of testing, but that's about it."
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