Bill Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares," New York Times Magazine, 26 May 2002
Fiery Hell on Earth, Part 2
June 10, 2004
The U.S. is enabling the spread of atomic bombs worldwide in at least
four different ways (see Rachel's #792). But why? Do Mr. Bush's
military advisors or his core supporters in the Republican party
imagine some benefit from allowing A-bombs to slip into the hands of
In this series, I am searching for answers.
By "atomic bombs" I do not mean "dirty bombs" -- a few sticks of
dynamite wrapped with a packet of radioactive medical waste. I mean
the kind of A-bomb that turned the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki into a lake of fire in 1945.
There can be no question about it: In at least four ways the U.S. is
failing to stop -- in some cases is actually promoting -- the spread
of A-bombs by:
(1) Helping foreign government acquire nuclear power plants --a sure
stepping stone to an A-bomb for any government inclined to take the
step (see Rachel's #792). All the newest members of the "nuclear
club" -- such as India, Pakistan and North Korea -- gained membership
by acquiring nuclear power plants, then developing A-bombs. Nuclear
power = nuclear weapons, and the U.S. is aggressively promoting the
spread of nuclear power worldwide.
(2) The U.S. is dragging its feet in securing A-bombs that are lying
around in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Thousands of
Soviet A-weapons are still poorly secured. As the New York Times
wrote two years ago, "No observer of the unraveling Russian military
has much trouble imagining that a group of military officers,
disenchanted by the humiliation of serving a spent superpower,
embittered by the wretched conditions in which they spend much of
their military lives or merely greedy, might find a way to divert a
warhead to a terrorist for the right price."
Furthermore, the U.S.-Russian program to secure 68 tons of plutonium
(enough to make more than 10,000 A-bombs), begun in 1998, is
"stalled" over a trivial legal technicality. As the Washington Post
reported last month, some analysts and politicans -- including
Republican Senator Pete Domenici (a staunch proponent of nuclear
power and weapons) -- "are doubting the Bush administration's
commitment" to securing the plutonium.
(3) The U.S. is failing to aggressively retrieve 35,000 pounds of
weapons-grade uranium that the U.S. and the Soviets gave or lent to
43 countries during the cold war -- enough to make more than 300
hefty A-bombs; and
(4) Reversing long-standing policy, the U.S. is now building a new
class of smaller A-bombs, which are being advertised as "more usable"
-- meanwhile telling the rest of the world to renounce atomic
weapons. "This administration seems to believe that the United States
can move the world in one direction while we ourselves move in a
different direction," says U.S. Representative John M. Spratt, Jr.
(D-S.C.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and
an expert on U.S. nuclear policy. Mr. Spratt says President Bush is
"taking us back to somewhere where we were years ago and were
thankful to have moved beyond."
Here we pick up the story with point 3:
Late last month U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham announced a
$450 million effort to retrieve the 35,000 pounds of weapons-grade
uranium from 43 countries. It is expected to take 13 years, if all
goes according to plan. Mr. Abraham said his plan would ensure that
nuclear materials "will not fall into the hands of those with evil
intentions." This sounds reassuring until you learn that Pentagon
auditors concluded two months earlier, in March, that "large
quantities of U.S.-produced highly-enriched uranium were out of U.S.
The New York Times reported in March, 2004, that "The Energy
Department's inspector general says that about half of the [35,000
pounds of enriched] uranium is in the hands of government agencies,
universities or private companies in 12 countries that are "not
expected to participate in the program" to return it. Among those
countries are Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Mexico, Jamaica and South
Africa. Furthermore, according to the Wall Street Journal, other
countries with "research reactors" that could be used to make weapons
include Vietnam, Syria, Serbia, Pakistan and North Korea.
Commenting on Secretary Abraham's announcement, Graham Allison, a
Harvard professor and author of the forthcoming book, Nuclear
Terrorism [ISBN 0805076514], told the New York Times that the plan
would be "important if the words are matched by deeds." However, he
said, the scale and speed of the effort are still woefully
inadequate. "There is still a serious imbalance between the magnitude
of the nuclear threat he [Abraham] describes and the remedies
proposed," Allison said. Mr. Allison subsequently signed up to
advise the John Kerry campaign, which has said the uranium cleanup
job should take 4 years, not 13. Administration officials scoff at
the Kerry timetable as unrealistic.
The fastest possible retrieval does seem warranted. As the New York
Times editorialized May 28, "Highly enriched uranium is scattered at
some 130 research reactors in more than 40 countries, often guarded
by little more than a night watchman and a chain-link fence. Dozens
of these sites have enough material to make a bomb."
But, inexplicably, U.S. retrieval efforts have actually slowed since
9/11. The Times noted that "less nuclear material was secured in the
two years immediately after the 9/11 attacks than in the two years
And: "Although the United States and Russia are cooperating on a
program to safeguard dangerous materials and have fixed some of the
most glaring vulnerabilities, only a fifth of the dangerous nuclear
material not in weapons has been protected by comprehensive security
upgrades, an appallingly sluggish performance," the Times's editors
Why is President Bush approaching this problem in an "appallingly
sluggish" fashion? Who among the President's advisors or core
supporters in the Republican party imagine that there's something to
be gained by this approach?
Point 4: Provocative new A-bomb policies
The Bush administration is promoting the spread of nuclear weapons
worldwide in a fourth way -- by starting its own provocative program
to build a new generation of A-bombs, reversing long-standing U.S.
policy. Furthermore, the administration has announced a new policy of
possible pre-emptive first use of nuclear weapons in emergencies,
even against non-nuclear states.
Mr. Bush's military strategists say the new generation of smaller
weapons is desirable because smaller A-bombs are "more usable." A New
York Times editorial June 8 says "more usable" means "easing the
taboo that has kept nuclear weapons sheathed since 1945 on behalf of
a bomb that could still expose hundreds of thousands of people to
death or radiation sickness. With nine countries now believed to have
nuclear weapons, including North Korea, Pakistan, India and Israel,
the world does not need America's encouraging the idea of more usable
The Bush administration is also developing a new generation of large
A-bombs -- called bunker busters -- intended to penetrate deep into
the ground before exploding. "Just imagine launching nuclear bunker
busters based on weapons intelligence as unreliable as that
circulating before the Iraq war," says the Times editorial. "Even if
underground sites were accurately identified, the resulting nuclear
explosions could spread the blast, radiation and toxins over
populated areas." As an alternative, the Times favors conventional
ways of dealing with underground fortresses -- like blocking air
supplies or cutting off external energy sources.
The normally-staid editors of the Times call Mr. Bush's new A-weapons
programs a "different and dangerous direction" for U.S. policy, a
"reckless folly" that "boggles the mind."
Even some Republicans are dismayed at these policy shifts. Rep. Joel
Hefley (R-Colo.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee,
told the San Francisco Chronicle, "We don't need new weapons, and in
fact we cause more harm than good in our relations with other
countries in our moral position on nuclear proliferation. I think
they're almost obsolete. I'm not convinced that we have to have that
Even inside the Pentagon some argue there is no need for a new
generation of nuclear weapons. A classified study by the Defense
Science Board, leaked in November 2003, stated, "Current [Department
of Defense] structure provides neither clear requirements nor
persuasive rationale for changing the nuclear stockpile."
Strangely, this is an issue that divides Democrats from Republicans:
"Traditionally, Democrats have viewed nuclear weapons as nearly
unusable, a deterrent of last resort," said Loren Thompson, chief
operating officer of the libertarian Lexington Institute and an
opponent of such new nuclear research. "Republicans, on the other
hand, particularly since the Reagan years, have sought to integrate
nuclear weapons into the broader arsenal of war-fighting tools, to
treat them simply as a more powerful version of conventional
This is precisely President Bush's approach -- to treat small A-bombs
as if they were simply more powerful versions of conventional
weapons. But of course they will leave radioactive fallout and
long-term radiation sickness in their wake, and so, if used, they
will send shockwaves of anger and outrage throughout the world. After
the U.S. unleashed a small A-bomb or a larger atomic bunker buster,
many small countries could become convinced that there's no reason
why they shouldn't have their own A-bombs. Terrorists would no doubt
redouble their efforts to retaliate in kind, eager to deliver an
A-bomb by boat to the Statue of Liberty or the Golden Gate Bridge. An
effective A-bomb could enter U.S. waters in a "conex" shipping
container and be detonated before passing through customs. Such an
attack would be extremely difficult to prevent. [1; and see Rachel's
A tiny one-kiloton A-bomb (1/20th the size of the Hiroshima bomb) set
off in New York City would probably kill 20,000 people immediately.
In the next few days, tens of thousands more would die from
third-degree burns and radiation sickness. The cloud of radioactive
fallout would injure many more in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, or New
Jersey -- depending upon the wind.
President Bush's new policy is to fight arms of mass destruction with
arms of mass destruction -- something approaching a modern version of
an eye for an eye -- except that Mr. Bush has announced he may be
willing to take the first eye. As the Times reported a year ago,
"diplomacy and arms control, for now, have taken a back seat to
Others are itching to flex back. CIA director George Tenet said more
than a year ago, "The desire for nuclear weapons is on the upsurge
among small countries, confronting the world with a new nuclear arms
race that threatens to dismantle more than three decades of
nonproliferation efforts.... We have entered a new world of
proliferation," he said.
And the U.S. is making very deliberate and systematic contributions
to arming this new world with A-bombs.
I keep asking myself, "What would possess President Bush to do such a thing?"
How could the President or his core supporters in the Republican
party imagine that they -- or anyone else -- might benefit from a
world awash in A-bombs?
Some possible answers next time.
[To be continued.]
 Bill Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares," New York Times Magazine May 26, 2002.
 Peter Slavin, "U.S.-Russia Plutonium Disposal Project
Languishing," Washington Post May 10, 2004, pg. A17.
 Peter Slevin, "Sounding the Alarm on Nuclear Proliferation,"
Washington Post June 1, 2004, pg. A21.
 Watthew L. Wald and Judith Miller, "Energy Department Plans a
Push to Retrieve Nuclear Materials," New York Times May 26, 2004.
 Anonymous, "Update: Abraham Announces Plan to Cut Nuclear
Threat," Dow Jones Newswires May 26, 2004.
 Joel Brinkley and William J. Broad, "U.S. Lags in Recovering Fuel
Suitable for Nuclear Arms," New York Times Mar. 7, 2004.
 John J. Fialka, "U.S., Russia Will Seek Return of Nuclear Fuel,"
Wall Street Journal May 26, 2004.
 Jodi Wilgoren, "Kerry Promises Speedier Efforts to Secure Nuclear
Arms," New York Times June 2, 2004.
 "Editorial: A Real Nuclear Danger," New York Times May 28, 2004.
 James Sterngold, "New era of nuclear weapons: Bush's buildup
begins with little debate in Congress," San Francisco Chronicle Dec.
 "Editorial: The Wrong Proliferation Message," New York Times June 8, 2004.
 Robert Schlesinger, "Senate OK's repeal of 'mininuke' ban,"
Boston Globe May 21, 2003.
 William J. Broad, "Chain Reaction: Facing a Second Nuclear Age,"
New York Times August 3, 2003.
 Walter Pincus, "CIA Head Predicts Nuclear Race," Washington Post
Feb. 12, 2003.
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