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Size Doesn't Matter; America Has Put Nuclear Weapons Back on the World's Agenda; Big or small, they're still dangerous

By Richard Norton-Taylor, Guardian (London), Wednesday 25 April 2001

It is time we Europeans woke up to the fact, however uncomfortable it may be, that nuclear weapons are well and truly back on the agenda. A growing lobby of American political and military zealots, reawakened by President Bush's election success and egged on by leading scientists, want to attack "rogue" states with nuclear weapons.

Under proposals being considered by the US defence department, "mini-nukes" would attack dictators' underground headquarters and their supplies of chemical and biological weapons. Nukes would do what conventional bombs have conspicuously failed to achieve: knock out bunkers being built deeper and deeper into the rocks. User-friendly, "low-yield", nuclear weapons would limit collateral damage (ie killing civilians) and radioactive fall-out, argue their proponents.

"The US will undoubtedly require a new nuclear weapon... because it is realised that the yields of the weapons left over from the cold war are too high for addressing the deterrence requirements of a multipolar, widely proliferated world," Paul Robinson, director of America's Sandia Nuclear Laboratories pronounced recently. "Low-yield weapons with highly accurate delivery systems" would be a useful deterrent, he said, adding that such devices could help decision-makers "contemplate the destruction of some buried or hidden targets while being mindful of the need to minimise collateral damage".

In a paper entitled Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century, Stephen Younger, head of nuclear weapons research at the Los Alamos laboratory, last year said low-yield nukes would be more effective against underground concrete bunkers and mobile missiles than conventional bombs. Weapons of less than five kilotons, the argument goes, would be a more credible deterrent than "normal" nuclear weapons. Indeed, they could have been used during the Kosovo war. And mini-nukes would enable the US to reduce its stockpile of 6,000 much larger nuclear warheads.

The taboo, whereby nuclear weapons would not be used against non-nuclear powers as a war-fighting tool, was breached last year in an amendment to the US defence budget authorisation bill tabled by two republican senators, John Warner and Wayne Allard. This required the Pentagon to study how best to bomb buried targets, including the use of low-yield nuclear devices.

A 1994 law, the Federation of American Scientists points out in a recent report, prohibits nuclear laboratories in the US from undertaking research and development that could lead to a precision nuclear weapon of less than five kilotons because "low-yield nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war". However, it warns that legislation for long-term research and actual development of low-yield nuclear weapons will almost certainly be proposed in the new session of Congress.

The notion that an accurate, low-yield, nuclear bomb would cause limited - acceptable - collateral damage is ludicrous. As Martin Butcher and Theresa Hitchens, two security analysts, point out, a five-kiloton warhead dropped on London might only destroy Islington. But it would kill thousands of people and make thousands more victims of burns, radiation sickness, and blindness.

"The use of any nuclear weapon capable of destroying a buried target that is otherwise immune to conventional attack will necessarily produce enormous numbers of civilian casualties," the federation points out in its report. "No earth-burrowing missile can penetrate deep enough into the earth to contain an explosion with a nuclear yield even as small as 1% of the 15 kiloton Hiroshima weapon," it says. "The explosion simply blows out a massive crater of radioactive dirt, which rains down on the local region with an especially intense and deadly fallout."

The Pentagon is due to send its report on mini-nukes to Congress in July, the same time a separate and comprehensive review of US strategic nuclear deterrence is likely to be published. One thing is certain. As Paul Rogers, professor of peace studies at Bradford University, puts it: "Building new nuclear weapons is firmly on the agenda of the Bush administration."

Whether it involves the development of mini-nukes or a new version of the Minuteman intercontinental ballis tic missile system or a new Trident 3 system for nuclear submarines, it will lead to increasing pressure within the US to resume nuclear tests, a move which could destroy the comprehensive test ban treaty which Washington has yet to ratify.

This, coupled with the growing debate in the US about using nuclear weapons in limited or regional wars, has the most serious implications for nuclear proliferation and arms control treaties already threatened by the Bush administration's determination to go ahead with a missile defence system.

There is talk now in the US about nuclear weapons in this project, too. Nuclear warheads, so the argument runs, would be most effective in knocking out incoming missiles. That's one more reason to worry.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001