MERCURY, Nev. — If the Bush administration succeeds in its determined but little-noticed push to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons, this sun-baked desert flatland 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas could once again reverberate with the ground-shaking thumps of nuclear explosions that used to be common here.
The nuclear-weapons test areas are now a wasteland that is home mostly to lizards and coyotes. Throughout the Nevada Test Site, the ground is strewn with mangled buildings and pockmarked with craters, the ghostly evidence of the 928 nuclear tests the government conducted here from 1951 to 1992.
A concrete tower designed to hold the bomb for what would have been the 929th test still looms over the desert floor.
But "Icecap," the test of a bomb 10 times the size of the one that devastated the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945, was halted when the first President Bush placed a moratorium on U.S. nuclear tests in October 1992. The voluntary test ban came two years after Russia stopped its nuclear tests.
In the 11 years since, the United States has worked to halt the spread of nuclear weapons around the world and has often touted its own self-imposed restraint as a model for other nations.
But the Bush administration has now taken a decidedly different approach, one that has touched off a passionate debate in Washington. Last year the White House released, to little publicity, the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review. That policy paper embraces the use of nuclear weapons in a first strike and on the battlefield; it also says a return to nuclear testing may soon be necessary. It was coupled with a request for $70 million to study and develop new types of nuclear weapons and to shorten the time it would take to test them.
Last November, months before the invasion of Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld casually told reporters during a flight to Chile that military strategists were examining ways to neutralize Iraq's chemical and biological weapons. Among options studied were bunker-busting bombs that might have nuclear payloads.
Bunker-busters are heavy, missile-like bombs with hardened noses that penetrate the ground before exploding. No nuclear bunker-busters were employed in Iraq, although their use was considered there and in Afghanistan.
But the matter-of-fact way in which Rumsfeld suggested their possible role was a rare public sign of a growing effort by the administration to end the decade-long ban on developing and testing new nuclear bombs.
The main reason offered by the Pentagon is that "rogue" nations such as North Korea, Iran and Libya have gone deep, building elaborate bunkers hundreds of feet underground where their leaders and weapons could ride out an attack by the biggest conventional weapons U.S. forces could throw at them. U.S. officials also theorize that the vaporizing blast of a nuclear bomb might be the only way to safely destroy an enemy's chemical or biological weapons.
The Pentagon says developing new nuclear weapons makes sense in a dangerous world. "Without having the ability to hold those targets at risk, we essentially provide sanctuary," J.D. Crouch, an assistant secretary of Defense, told reporters earlier this year.
But others argue that moving toward a new generation of nuclear weapons, instead of improving conventional and non-nuclear ways to attack deep targets or chemical weapons sites, is fraught with danger.
"They are opening the door to a new era of a global nuclear arms competition," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, D.C. "As we try to turn the tide of nuclear proliferation, the last thing we should suggest is that nuclear weapons have a role in the battlefield, and these weapons are battlefield weapons. This is a serious step in the wrong direction."
Kimball and others say research would eventually lead to testing. If Congress approves the White House requests, the first live tests of any new nuclear weapon could come as early as 2005.
Since 1992, weapons have been tested only in non-nuclear experiments 963 feet below the ground at the test site and in computer simulations here and in labs. Congress has mostly gone along with the new approach and has green-lighted most of the Bush administration proposals. This spring, the House of Representatives and the Senate agreed to spend $15.5 million to develop a nuclear bunker-buster called the "Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator." They also agreed to spend money to make changes to the Nevada Test Site, shortening to as little as 18-24 months the time it would take to resume nuclear tests. (It would take 24-36 months now.)
Congress is hung up on just one element of the Bush plan: a ban on researching and developing a nuclear bomb with a payload of 5 kilotons or less. (A kiloton is equivalent to the explosive force of 1,000 tons of TNT.) The Senate voted to end the ban, while the House voted to keep it; the two sides are expected to settle their differences in a House-Senate conference committee by August.
'10, 9, 8, 7 ...'
In the peak days of nuclear testing, more than 11,000 people worked here at the test site, an area larger than Rhode Island. It was a bustling place with a movie theater, newspaper, social activities, souvenir earrings in the shape of mushroom clouds and a clear sense of mission underscored by its own peculiar brand of humor. When protesters occasionally slipped through security and hid on the grounds to try to stop a test, officials would flush them out by turning on the PA system and faking a countdown — "10, 9, 8, 7. .. " — until the terrified trespassers jumped up and waved their arms to be hustled away.
Now the test ranges look like historical snapshots that have faded under the blistering Nevada sun. Lizards skitter about the debris that survived the numerous nuclear blasts. Coyotes give hard stares to the rare human interloper who interrupts their scavenging. Just over a hill is "Area 51," the ultra-secret Air Force test site that spawned rumors of strange new weapons and UFO visits.
Go north, and the land becomes a moonscape where craters large and small pinpoint the locations of dozens of underground tests. Turn south, and the road leads to "Doom City," where twisted steel girders, a shattered bank vault and the skeletal remains of buildings, cars and airplanes are testimony to the savage power of nuclear blasts.
"In the past, you could take (a nuclear weapon) off the shelf, take it to the Nevada Test Site and detonate it to see what you needed to see," says Kevin Rohrer, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which maintains the U.S. nuclear arsenal. "Now we have to do it with computers, and that doesn't tell you how the (nuclear) material ages, what physical properties have changed, what all you need to know."
The United States has signed three treaties to limit nuclear weapons testing: the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban treaty, which prohibited aboveground and underwater nuclear tests; the 1974 Threshold Treaty, which limited tests to less than 15 kilotons; and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban, which was to halt all testing. The Senate never ratified the 1996 treaty. But like other nations, the United States abides by treaties it has signed, even if they have not been ratified.
Bunkers and bugs
During his trip to Chile last fall, Rumsfeld questioned the reliability of aging and long-untested U.S. nuclear stockpiles. He suggested that the military might need to resume testing weapons to ensure they would work if deployed.
"If you are asking me (if I am going) to go to the president and recommend re-initiating nuclear testing, the answer is, no, I am not. Could I someday? Yes, I could, if they came to me and said, 'I'm worried about the reliability and safety and our weapons,' " Rumsfeld said then.
Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says nuclear weapons could be crucial tools for destroying chemical and biological weapons stocks without causing wider harm.
"In terms of anthrax, it's said that gamma rays can ... destroy the anthrax spores, which is something we need to look at," Myers told reporters at the Pentagon on May 20. "And in chemical weapons, of course, the heat (of a nuclear blast) can destroy the chemical compounds and make them not develop that plume that conventional weapons might do, that would then drift and perhaps bring others in harm's way."
Military planners also see nuclear bombs as vital for destroying deep bunkers, which they say have become rogue nations' tool of choice for putting their weapons beyond the reach of the world's mightiest military force. At the top of the bunker list is North Korea, according to an official at the Defense Intelligence Agency who asked not to be named. The North Koreans have developed advanced tunneling equipment and improved building materials that allow them to dig deeper, more quickly and more stealthily. They can make their bunkers stronger and put them in places where U.S. surveillance now has a tougher time finding them.
Neutralizing such bunkers is getting more difficult, according to a congressional agency.
"Special operations forces or precision-guided conventional bombs might defeat buried structures by attacking power supplies, ventilation systems and exits. The only way to destroy them is with a strong shock wave that travels through the ground," the Congressional Research Service said in a report in January.
The fallout problem
But some military experts argue that while underground bunkers are a legitimate concern, nuclear bunker-busters are not the answer.
"Even if there were a worldwide trend toward deeply buried bunkers, which is doubtful, alternative means exist for disabling the devices stored there," says Loren Thompson, a military analyst with The Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., public policy group. "These include conventional penetrating warheads with higher yields, microwave weapons that shut down bunker electronic systems and various special forces."
The limitations of physics mean even the best-designed bunker-busters can burrow only 30 to 50 feet before exploding. The explosion triggers shock waves that travel down toward buried targets and destroy them.
Critics say that means nuclear bunker-busters wouldn't be able to burrow deep enough before exploding to contain the fallout they would create. Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist, determined that destroying a target dug 1,000 feet into rock would require a nuclear weapon with a yield of 100 kilotons — more than six times that of the Hiroshima bomb. The explosion of a nuclear bomb that big would launch enormous amounts of radioactive debris into the air and contaminate a huge area.
To contain fallout for a one-kiloton bomb, the warhead would have to penetrate an estimated 220 feet underground, many times the depth achievable by any current earth-penetrator warhead. The challenge scientists face is to find some way to get the bomb deep enough so that the explosion harms only what's underground — not people on the surface.
Critics say the evidence against battlefield use of nuclear weapons is spread all over the Nevada Test Site. Most notable is Sedan Crater, 1,280 feet across and 320 feet deep. It is the largest crater at the test site, the result of a 104-kiloton device that was exploded 635 feet underground in 1962.
The idea was to see whether nuclear weapons could be used for such peaceful purposes as creating new harbors. The blast threw 12 million tons of radioactive earth 290 feet into the air, where it became airborne fallout. That was the end of the idea of digging harbors with nuclear bombs.
Skeptics of the Bush program — and the ability of the new weapons to perform as advertised — say they hope the debate over the weapons has not started too late.
"The public does not focus very much on national security and foreign policy," says John Isaacs, president of Council for a Livable World, a Washington, D.C.-based nuclear arms public policy group. "The administration has prevailed by telling Congress this is only research, not developing or testing or building. The next battles (in Congress) may not be as easy."
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