Experts blast US nuclear bunker-busters

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Posted by Sadie from D006067.N1.Vanderbilt.Edu ( on Thursday, May 29, 2003 at 8:42PM :

Nature 423, 469 (29 May, 2003)

Experts blast US decision to back nuclear bunker-busters


[WASHINGTON] The US Congress has voted to plough $15 million into developing Earth-penetrating nuclear weapons to destroy underground bunkers. But weapons experts have cast doubt on the scheme, arguing that this is an inappropriate use of nuclear technology.

The plan, which was proposed last year (see Nature 415, 945946; 2002), aims to develop the weapons primarily to target hidden stores of biological or chemical weapons. According to the author of a new study, however, such agents may simply be dispersed by the weapons, and conventional weapons are better suited to the job.

President George W. Bush's administration welcomed last week's votes in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says that the radiation emitted by nuclear explosions could sterilize biological agents, and that the heat generated will destroy chemical weapons. Conventional weapons, he argues, are unsuitable as they are liable to spread such biological or chemical agents, creating a greater hazard.

But Robert Nelson, an astrophysicist and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think-tank based in New York, disagrees. In a paper shortly to appear in the journal Science and Global Security, he calculates the impact of an underground detonation of a nuclear device.

Nelson finds that rock or concrete surrounding a bomb would absorb heat and radiation, but would transmit the massive shockwave caused by the explosion. A nuclear device equivalent to 10,000 tonnes of TNT, for example, would create a crater 200 metres wide, but only material within 11 metres of the centre would be sterilized. Large amounts of material would be ejected from the centre of the blast, along with radioactive dust created in the explosion. Nelson suggests that it would be better to use conventional weapons to block the entrances and ventilation shafts of such bunkers until they could be secured by friendly forces.

Nelson admits that his analysis is basic, but argues that the results are clear-cut. Sidney Drell, deputy director emeritus of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California and an architect of the US stockpile-stewardship programme, designed to maintain nuclear weapons without testing, agrees that the study is sound. He believes that the crater and sterilization area could be marginally larger than Nelson estimates, but echoes Nelson's argument that such a blast might only act to disperse chemical or biological agents.

Drell adds, however, that he is more concerned by the $6 million allocated last week by the Congress for research into another new type of nuclear device low-yield nuclear weapons known as mini-nukes. The United States has had a self-imposed ban on such weapons since 1993, but last week's vote marks an end to this ruling. Drell is worried that the move blurs the line between nuclear and conventional weapons, ultimately increasing the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used in anger.

Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2003 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Sadie
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