San Francisco Chronicle
March 1, 2003
Fallout Seen from White House Nuclear Policy
Plans for Small Bombs, Resumed Tests Could Prompt Other Nations
by James Sterngold
As the United States moved closer this week to launching a war against
Iraq -- in part to prevent it from developing a nuclear armory --
controversy grew over the Bush administration's efforts to develop
new, "usable" nuclear bombs that critics say may encourage
the spread of these uniquely destructive weapons.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., on Wednesday described as
"extremely provocative and dangerous" administration
proposals that would repeal a decade-old prohibition on the
development of smaller nuclear bombs, allow building "low-yield"
warheads, and make it easier to resume nuclear testing.
Feinstein said such proposals could prompt other countries to
build their own nuclear stockpiles in response. She said, "If we
are not careful, our own nuclear posture may well provoke the very
nuclear-proliferation activities we seek to prevent."
The proposals, which run counter to 50 years of a policy favoring
nonproliferation, have not been officially declared, but their
outlines have become clear in recent months from leaked documents,
comments by administration and Pentagon officials, and the
administration's budget requests.
Supporters say a more assertive U.S. nuclear posture is needed to
prevent hostile states and terrorist groups from building their own
nuclear arsenals and hoarding other weapons of mass destruction. The
policy would rely more on threats of force and possible pre-emptive
strikes than on treaties, negotiations and sanctions, as in the
"The Bush administration has pushed a radical redirection of
nonproliferation strategy," said Joseph Cirincione, director of
the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for
Cirincione and other critics warn that the evolving doctrine could
start a whole new nuclear arms race, from Asia to Latin America.
"If the United States sends signals that we are considering
new uses for nuclear weapons, isn't it more likely that other nations
will also want to explore greater use or new uses for nuclear
weapons?" Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., a senior member of the Armed
Services Committee, asked of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at a
Senate hearing two weeks ago.
Rumsfeld countered that the new U.S. nuclear weapons being
discussed -- so-called "bunker-busters" that could, in
theory, burrow underground and destroy caches of enemy weapons -- are
needed to deter foes from trying to hide their arsenals in deep
"Not having the ability to penetrate and reach them creates a
very serious obstacle to U.S. national security," Rumsfeld
Supporters of the new policy also argue that the old nonproliferation
system of treaties and international organizations, including the
Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy
Agency, are no match for the ambitions of states with nuclear
ambitions, like North Korea, Iraq and Iran.
ORIGIN IN THINK TANK
The blueprint for this fundamental policy shift was partly formulated
two years ago by a Washington, D.C., think tank, the National
Institute for Public Policy, which bluntly called the old
nonproliferation system "outmoded."
"Arms control agreements negotiated in good faith can become
harmful to national security when they effectively preclude the U.S.
capability to adapt to changing times," said a panel of 28
experts. Seven members of the panel now occupy prominent positions in
the Bush administration, including the director of the National
Nuclear Security Administration and the deputy director of the
National Security Council.
David Smith, a former arms negotiator and the institute's chief
operating officer, said there was "an air of unreality"
surrounding the previous nonproliferation policies of restraint and
disarmament. "It could never do all the things some claimed for
it. It can hinder, but it can't stop proliferation. "
In a policy paper issued earlier this month, the House Policy
Committee, an influential group of House Republicans led by Rep.
Heather Wilson, R-N.M, called for the development and testing of
smaller, "low-yield" nuclear weapons, claiming that the old
nonproliferation polices had worked "largely where they were not
Critics of the nonproliferation agreements also argue that regional
ambitions and tensions have consistently thwarted U.S. attempts to
keep the nuclear genie in the bottle. They point to India and
Pakistan, which have built and tested nuclear weapons and never signed
the Non-Proliferation Treaty, despite pressure from the United States
and the United Nations.
"It's mostly regional concerns" that cause weapons
development, said Ronald F. Lehman II, a Bush administration adviser
and director of the Center for Global Security Research at the
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
"In very few instances is the position of the U.S. weapons
program the primary determinant of a decision" to develop nuclear
weapons, said Lehman, who headed the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament
Agency under the first President Bush.
CRACKS IN THE SYSTEM
All sides agree that the cracks in the nonproliferation system are
becoming more visible.
-- South Korea on Friday confirmed U.S. intelligence reports that
North Korea has reactivated a nuclear reactor that can produce
material for nuclear bombs. The communist state, believed to have
perhaps one or two nuclear devices already, recently renounced the
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and is believed to be developing the
capability to produce perhaps 50 bombs a year by reprocessing spent
fuel from a reactor. Should North Korea build an arsenal, it is feared
that Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan would be tempted to develop
their own stockpiles.
-- Russia this week told an American official of its concerns that
technology it has sold to Iran is being used to develop a nuclear
weapons program. Iran earlier announced that it is mining uranium,
which it is preparing to process, although it says it is for peaceful
-- Neighboring Pakistan, which already has nuclear weapons, is
believed to have supplied North Korea with nuclear technology, and
some analysts fear that rogue Pakistani scientists and technicians may
be the source for other countries' -- and perhaps terrorist groups' --
secret nuclear development.
-- Brazil has hinted it might need to consider resuming a nuclear
program. President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva criticized the Nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty in his election campaign last year. Last
month, his minister of science and technology suggested that Brazil
might need to develop its own nuclear technologies, although he later
said the purposes would be peaceful.
"We have entered a new world of proliferation," CIA Director
George Tenet said two weeks ago at a hearing before the Senate Select
Committee on Intelligence.
'OUGHT TO BE HORRIFIED'
John Holdren, a former weapons physicist and now director of the
Program on Science, Technology & Public Policy at Harvard's
Kennedy School of Government, agrees with Tenet's assessment. He
blamed, in part, the Bush administration's move toward a new nuclear
doctrine for removing some of the inhibitions against weapons
"Without doubt the (nonproliferation) regime is fragile now and
in danger of significant deterioration," said Holdren. "I
think it's premature to plan the funeral, but I also think we're
flirting with a disastrous situation. The Bush administration ought to
be horrified by that prospect."
Some administration officials echo the concern. One government
nonproliferation expert called the administration's rejection of the
traditional nuclear doctrines of restraint and nonproliferation
"shortsighted. " He added that a resumption of nuclear
testing, in particular, could severely damage American
"That would have very negative political consequences,"
because it would inevitably undermine U.S. efforts to prevent other
countries from conducting tests, said the official, who spoke on
condition he not be identified.
Such developments alarm defenders of the nonproliferation system,
especially those weapons designers who believed nuclear weapons were
the ultimate deterrent.
"The whole goal of nuclear-weapons development was to prevent
their use," said Dr. Michael May, a weapons scientist and a
former director of the Livermore lab. "I don't know of a more
May said the United States should continue to do everything possible
to eliminate nuclear weapons, since they are the one weapon by which
an enemy could defeat or at least stop in its tracks what has become
the most powerful conventional military force the world has ever
"Introducing more widely the one thing that can do us in is
just dumb," said May.
A History of Limiting Nuclear Arms
The nonproliferation system was created almost immediately after the
atomic bombing of Japan in 1945. Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight
Eisenhower committed the country to a process that, they hoped, would
not just limit proliferation but would eliminate nuclear weapons
entirely. Those principles were enshrined first in the charter of the
United Nations and then in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,
signed in 1968. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Eisenhower's
landmark "Atoms for Peace" speech at the United Nations.
While nonproliferation never achieved the ultimate goal, its successes
have been notable. Even as the United States and the Soviet Union were
locked in a dangerous Cold War standoff, nuclear programs in countries
ranging from Sweden in the 1960s to Brazil and Argentina in the 1980s
were stopped. Three former Soviet states abandoned their weapons with
the end of the Cold War, as did South Africa following its shift to
black majority rule. The United States and the Soviet Union slashed
their arsenals of long-range missiles in half. In 1987, the United
States and the Soviet Union agreed to eliminate a whole class of
shorter-range nuclear missiles.
The regimen reached what weapons analysts regard as its high-water
mark just after the first Gulf War and the halting of Iraq's nuclear
program. At that time, industrialized countries also made a
breakthrough agreement under which they strictly limited exports of
equipment and materials used for nuclear weapons development.
Today there are only nine known nuclear states, and six of them
are democracies. In the early 1960s President Kennedy and others had
predicted that, by this time, there would be up to 30 nuclear