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Senators, Scientists Say Congress Should Reject Bush Administration's Proposals for New Nuclear Weapons
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For Immediate Release: May 1, 2003

Press Contacts: Daryl Kimball, (202) 277-3478 or Christine Kucia, (202) 463-8270 x103

Washington, D.C.): The diplomatic and security costs of the Bush administration's proposals to explore new nuclear weapons far outweigh any marginal benefits such arms might yield, an expert panel led by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) warned April 29. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) issued a statement with the same message in conjunction with the panel discussion, sponsored by the Arms Control Association.

The Bush administration is asking Congress to continue funding research on modifying existing types of nuclear weapons to enable them to destroy deeply buried and hardened targets. It is also seeking a repeal of a 10-year-old prohibition, known as the Spratt-Furse Amendment, against research and development leading to the production of low-yield nuclear weapons.

Kennedy took issue with both of the administration's proposals. He noted that the "bunker buster" currently being researched would have a destructive potential 10 times that of the blast that destroyed Hiroshima and could "spew tons of radioactive waste into the atmosphere, with a devastating plume that could poison huge areas in its path." Kennedy also dismissed the concept of low-yield weapons, saying, "The precision-guided munitions and standoff weapons we have today make these mini-nukes unnecessary. They would be no more effective than conventional munitions, and would be far more dangerous to our troops."

Led by Kennedy, the panel warned that the administration's proposals send the wrong message to the rest of the world that the United States believes nuclear weapons have a battlefield role. The proposals threaten to breakdown the long-standing firewall between conventional arms and nuclear weapons and jeopardize what has become an international norm of the non-use of nuclear weapons, according to the panel.

Kennedy declared, "A nuclear weapon is not just another item in our arsenal, and it's wrong to treat it like it is."

Feinstein asked, "How can we effectively seek to dissuade others from developing nuclear weapons while we are going forward with the development of new nuclear weapons ourselves?" She cautioned, "If we are not careful, our own nuclear posture could provoke the very nuclear proliferation activities we are seeking to prevent."

Dr. Sidney Drell, professor emeritus at Stanford University, said that using nuclear weapons, either to respond to a chemical or biological attack or in a tactical situation against a deeply buried bunker is a "terrible idea." He added, "I think that's the most dangerous idea in the world that we face."

The administration contends that making nuclear weapons more "usable," by reducing their potential for causing civilian casualties or improving their effectiveness in destroying sites buried deep below the Earth's surface, would enhance the deterrent value of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Drell and Dr. Matthew McKinzie of the Natural Resources Defense Council contested the notion that a nuclear weapon could be developed to destroy a deeply buried target, yet cause little collateral damage. Drell said the concept is a "physical myth." Both physicists noted a nuclear weapon exploded just beneath the Earth's surface would actually create more fallout than one detonated above the target because the former casts more radioactive dirt and particles into the air. Drell noted that for a five-kiloton weapon to produce no fallout, it would have to be detonated about 350 feet deep, but "we don't know how to go below 50 [feet]."

Drell argued that instead of investing in new nuclear weapons, the United States would benefit more by improving its conventional weapons capabilities and means to gather accurate information and target suspected sites of concern.

Instead of approving the Bush administration's initiatives to explore new nuclear weapons, Daryl G. Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, recommended four other actions:

  • Maintain the current prohibition on low-yield nuclear weapons research.
  • Shift nuclear bunker buster funding to non-nuclear munitions research.
  • Reaffirm the U.S. nuclear test moratorium and focus stockpile stewardship efforts on surveillance and maintenance activities most useful to ensuring the reliability of the existing U.S. nuclear arsenal.
  • Clarify that as long as the United States possesses nuclear weapons, their role is limited to the deterrence of nuclear attack by other states.

These four recommendations are further detailed in "New Nuclear Policies, New Weapons, New Dangers"—a new Arms Control Association report on the Bush administration's misdirected approach to nuclear weapons. The report is available online at http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/newnuclearweaponsissuebrief.asp.
(Also available as a PDF file, requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

A full transcript of the briefing with Senator Kennedy is also available online at http://www.armscontrol.org/events/newnuclearweapons_apr03.asp.

Senator Dianne Feinstein's (D-CA) statement is available at http://feinstein.senate.gov/03Releases/r-arms.htm.

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The Arms Control Association is an independent, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies to address security threats posed by nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, as well as conventional arms.

 

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Posted: May 1, 2003