Late in May, the Bush administration won a major legislative victory in its push toward development of smaller nuclear bombs. Although criticized by some, President Bush's efforts likely received a warm welcome in southeastern Washington State at Richland High School (home of "The Bombers"), whose mascot is a giant mushroom cloud. The school's emblem was inspired by the nearby Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which produced the plutonium for countless nuclear weapons, including the bomb called "Fat Man," which obliterated Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.
At Bush's urging, Congress voted to lift its 10-year-old ban on research and development of small, "tactical" nukes, bombs ranging up to a third the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945. (The differences in the House and Senate bills still must be reconciled.)
America has built no nuclear weapons since 1990, while deactivating many. Nuclear testing stopped roughly a decade ago, as did development of tactical nukes. The tax money just appropriated for tactical nuclear weapons research is quite small in proportion to military spending. But the president's policies are a distinct reversal of prior administrations' slow, steady retreat from the nuclear brink. Bush has made clear his willingness to use nuclear weapons, even in so-called pre-emptive strikes against non-nuclear countries.
Bush's nuclear policy, like Richland High's mascot, is a bizarre throwback to a bygone era, familiar in the American West, when the government thoughtlessly promoted military technology as a cure-all for ethical and diplomatic challenges. Typical of that era's approach was a plan called Project Chariot (part of "Operation Plowshare"), which would have detonated multiple nuclear weapons off Alaska's northwest coast to create an artificial deepwater port. The plan persisted for four years, until 1962, despite the vigorous objection of inhabitants terrified by the ghastly damage the blasts and radiation would have inflicted on people and ecosystems.
Other examples are more widely known, including the high cancer rates among Utahans living downwind from the Nevada Test Site, where some 900 nukes were exploded during the Cold War. Even some residents of Richland, Wash., ("Go Bombers!") are alarmed by the 55 million gallons of radioactive waste buried at Hanford in leaking underground containers, awaiting federal cleanup.
With this sort of history so common and close at hand, we in America's nuclear heartland see right through Bush's new tactical (if not tactful) nuclear initiative. Call it "Operation Oblivious Texan," forsaking as it does precise, smart bombs for massively destructive stupid ones, a dumbing-down of Bush's arsenal to match his diplomacy.
Bush's surreal atomic contradictions reflect the logic of Dr. Strangelove's generation: He wants to curtail nuclear proliferation by proliferating nukes, wants to minimize the threat of nuclear war by making nuclear weapons more practical to use and seems to be enforcing his international consensus against weapons of mass destruction in part by implicitly threatening to nuke the uncooperative.
The research Bush ordered will be conducted at the Los Alamos and Sandia labs in New Mexico, and the Livermore lab, east of San Francisco. All three of these facilities continue to send deadly detritus from past bomb research to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project site near Carlsbad, N.M., where it will be stored for the next 10,000 years. To cope with the extreme, ultralong-term hazard, a group of anthropologists, linguists and other experts was convened in the early 1990s. Their job was to devise universal warning signs for the dump that people will heed after our language and civilization are forgotten --
a task as surreal as a varsity jacket emblazoned with a mushroom cloud.
It's surely too late to un-make the lethal debris at the Waste Isolation Pilot Project or save past victims of misguided nuclear adventures. But there's still time to start brainstorming sane diplomatic policies, military strategies -- and high school mascots.
Alex Roth is an attorney and writer in Portland, Ore.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle