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Critics sound alarm on Bush’s bid to jumpstart low-yield nuke program

Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — It's a common tactic used by lawmakers here: tucking controversial provisions into massive legislation, hoping they escape attention.

Buried in the Pentagon's budget proposal for next year is a one-line statement that would dramatically shift the nation's defense policy by rescinding "the prohibition on the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons."

But it did not go unnoticed. Instead, it sparked impassioned debate over the future of American defense strategy.

Nor is it the only change in the nation's nuclear weapons policy the Bush administration is seeking.


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Written into an annual assessment of the U.S. nuclear arsenal is a provision that would revamp equipment in Nevada to cut the time it would take to resume nuclear testing there from 36 months to as little as a year. The United States quit testing nuclear weapons in 1992.

Together, the changes represent what many arms control analysts and lawmakers say is a decidedly more aggressive nuclear posture by the United States at a particularly delicate and dangerous time.

The United States is now trying to rally international help for the shaky rebuilding effort in Iraq, which it invaded to stop the dangerous spread of weapons of mass destruction.

But especially worrisome, critics of the Bush plans say, is the prospect of researching the low-yield "bunker busting" nuclear weapons, which they fear will blur the line between nuclear and conventional weapons and pave the way to the acceptable use of atomic bombs on the battlefield.

"What is going to happen is the reopening of the door to nuclear development which has been closed for decades," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the leading opponents of the administration's plans.

These so-called bunker busters would produce an explosive yield of 5 kilotons or less, half to a third of the explosive power unleashed by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. They're designed to go after underground targets, especially chemical and biological weapons caches, which defense strategists claim are a growing threat.

"It's a serious matter that we do not have in the inventory the ability to deal with an underground, deeply buried target," Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued in defending the weapons to congressional budget appropriators.

Specifically, the Bush plan would repeal the 1993 Spratt-Furse ban on small-scale nuclear weapons research and begin the administration's Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator project.

Destabilizing effects

Repealing Spratt-Furse - named for the lawmakers who wrote it - would not automatically allow the administration to build bunker busters. Construction would require additional authority from Congress.

But merely starting the research, opponents argue, is dangerous in a world where volatile states such as North Korea argue they need nuclear weapons to deter what they claim is increasing aggression on the part of the United States.

Opponents contend developing bunker busters and ramping up nuclear testing readiness will only press adversarial states to pursue countermeasures, including chemical, biological and possibly nuclear weapons - the very weapons that intelligence reports warn already pose a serious threat to Americans.

Administration critics also fear a more aggressive U.S. nuclear policy could weaken the restrictions, formal and otherwise, on nuclear testing worldwide, especially where tensions are already dangerously high.

India and Pakistan brought the world to the threshold of nuclear war in 1998 with dueling atomic tests.

"In the context of things, you really have to wonder how smart all this is right now," Rose Gottemoeller, an arms control analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said of the Bush plans.

Rumsfeld insists the administration's nuclear plans have created no waves internationally, and that most concerns are overblown.

He stressed there are no plans to move beyond research on bunker busters, and there are no plans to begin testing nuclear weapons again.

"This has not caused any difficulties," he said. "The Russians have been briefed on it, as have our allies."

Thus far, no major U.S. allies, including the Russians, have taken any high-profile positions on any of the new issues.

New threats

The decimation of the Iraqi troops and equipment in the open desert during the first gulf war led potential enemies of the United States to conclude that they needed protection, and underground was the best place to get it.

North Korea is an often-cited example.

The rogue nation has 13,000 artillery emplacements capable of hitting South Korea with up to 300,000 shells an hour, 600 short- and medium-range missiles and large stocks of chemical munitions, much of them underground where conventional weapons would be unable to strike them.

According to a recent Congressional Research Service report, the only way to strike these underground targets "is with a strong shock wave that travels through the ground."

In theory, nuclear bunker busters could strike targets potentially hundreds of feet underground, destroying them more effectively than conventional weapons, which cannot reach nearly as deeply.

"It's said that gamma rays can, you know, destroy anthrax spores," Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently. "And with chemical weapons, of course, the heat can destroy the chemical compounds and make them not develop the plume that conventional weapons might do that would then drift and perhaps bring others in harm's way."

Some physicists, however, say that nuclear bunker busters can't penetrate deep enough before exploding to keep dangerous radioactive material from being ejected into the air. Some scientists estimate that a small 1-kiloton bunker buster would have to penetrate deeper than 200 feet into the ground to prevent the spread of radiation.

That's more than twice as deep as any conventional bunker buster can now penetrate. Scientists do not know what the nuclear variety would be capable of.

The technical discussion will continue, but not as passionately as the policy debate.

"How can we demand that North Korea and Iran abandon their nuclear weapons programs while we develop a new generation of those weapons?" asked Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.