San Francisco Chronicle
March 1, 2003

Fallout Seen from White House Nuclear Policy

Plans for Small Bombs, Resumed Tests Could Prompt Other Nations to Follow
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 past.

"The Bush administration has pushed a radical redirection of nonproliferation strategy," said Joseph Cirincione, director of the nonproliferation project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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 tunnels.

"Not having the ability to penetrate and reach them creates a very serious obstacle to U.S. national security," Rumsfeld said.

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.


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 needed."

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.


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 purposes.

-- 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.


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 development.

"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 credibility.

"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 important goal."

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 known.
"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 states.