The Bush administration may get permission to create kinder, gentler or at least smaller nuclear weapons if Congress overturns a ban on doing so.
The defense appropriations bill now winding its way through the Hill contains a clause revoking the 1993 Spratt-Furse amendment, which prohibits the development of so-called "low-yield" nuclear weapons – bombs that pack a punch of less than five kilotons.
Announcing its approval of the bill Friday, the Senate Armed Services committee stressed that nothing in the repeal means it has authorized "the testing, acquisition, or deployment of a low-yield nuclear weapon."
But the administration says smaller nuclear arms may eventually be needed to deal with the emerging threat of rogue states hoarding weapons of mass destruction.
"Nuclear weapons have a unique ability to destroy both agent containers and (Chemical and Biological Weapons)," reads a 2001 Pentagon study.
But some members of Congress believe conventional weapons could do the same job, and worry that mini-nukes would blur the line between conventional and nuclear weapons. Others contend that making more bombs is a bad idea if the U.S. wants to stop proliferation.
"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?" Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, asked recently.
The move to clear the legal hurdles on manufacturing mini-nukes is part of a broad review of U.S. policy on nuclear weapons, which has included:
Supporters say these weapons might be necessary to deal with so-called "hard and deeply buried targets" in rogue states and terrorist camps, of which there might be 10,000 in the world.
"One way you ensure that there are no safe havens is to be able to go deep," said Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Duncan Hunter, R.-Calif., last May. "Unless we do a lot more research and development and we find some quantum breakthrough in conventional systems, to go deep is going to require a nuclear capability."
But some experts contend that no bomb of any size could go very deep, because the heavier the bomb, the harder the impact — and the harder the impact, the more likely the bomb would explode before it reached sufficient depth.
However, the administration is paying increasing attention to the possibility that it might at some point have to resume testing if there were a question about the reliability of the nation's stockpile.
A memo obtained by a British newspaper indicates that at a conference this summer, Defense and Energy department officials will consider questions like: "What is the uncertainty in confidence and potential risk threshold for a test recommendation—what would demand a test?"
Defense officials said in 2002 that at present, the U.S could go from the decision to test to a trial run in two to three years. "If you were to have a problem with a weapon system that you needed to rectify using a test, you would want to be able to do that faster," J. D. Crouch, the assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, said in a briefing last year.
The Foster Panel, which studied the testing issue last year, recommended improvements that would allow a test within three months to a year of deciding to do so. According to Sen. Edward Kennedy, the administration has budgeted $700 million for studying how testing might resume. Other efforts include developing lasers and computers to simulate aspects of nuclear tests.
At the same time, however, last month the United States produced a plutonium pit — the core of a fission bomb — for the first time in 14 years. According to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the move "restores the nation's ability to make nuclear weapons," and was needed so the Energy Department could replace pits found unsafe or destroyed through regular check-ups.
Last year, the U.S. spent more in real terms on atomic defense activities than since 1962.
The 1993 low-yield ban that the current defense bill would delete stated that "it shall be the policy of the United States not to conduct research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a new low-yield nuclear weapon, including a precision low-yield warhead."
The ban — named after sponsors Elizabeth Furse, D-Ore., retired, and John Spratt, D-S.C. — did not prohibit designing a testing device with a yield below five kilotons, modifying an existing weapon for safety reasons or conducting research and development necessary "to address proliferation concerns."
A kiloton is equal to the explosive force of one thousand tons of TNT. A bomb of just one kiloton, detonated 30 meters below the earth, can open a crater wider than a football field, according to Princeton physicist Robert W. Nelson.
The Little Boy bomb dropped on Hiroshima delivered around 15 kilotons. In the modern U.S. arsenal, the submarine-launched Mk-5 holds eight W88 warheads of 475 kilotons each.
By Jarrett Murphy