Part 1:

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."[1]

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.[2]

(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."[3]

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.[4] 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."[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[4] 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.[8]

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."[9]

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.[10]

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."[11]

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."[10]

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.[1]

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 
muscle flexing."[13]

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.[14]

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.]

--Peter Montague


[1] Bill Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares," New York Times Magazine May 26, 2002.

[2] Peter Slavin, "U.S.-Russia Plutonium Disposal Project 
Languishing," Washington Post May 10, 2004, pg. A17.

[3] Peter Slevin, "Sounding the Alarm on Nuclear Proliferation," 
Washington Post June 1, 2004, pg. A21.

[4] Watthew L. Wald and Judith Miller, "Energy Department Plans a 
Push to Retrieve Nuclear Materials," New York Times May 26, 2004.

[5] Anonymous, "Update: Abraham Announces Plan to Cut Nuclear 
Threat," Dow Jones Newswires May 26, 2004.

[6] Joel Brinkley and William J. Broad, "U.S. Lags in Recovering Fuel 
Suitable for Nuclear Arms," New York Times Mar. 7, 2004.

[7] John J. Fialka, "U.S., Russia Will Seek Return of Nuclear Fuel," 
Wall Street Journal May 26, 2004.

[8] Jodi Wilgoren, "Kerry Promises Speedier Efforts to Secure Nuclear 
Arms," New York Times June 2, 2004.

[9] "Editorial: A Real Nuclear Danger," New York Times May 28, 2004.

[10] James Sterngold, "New era of nuclear weapons: Bush's buildup 
begins with little debate in Congress," San Francisco Chronicle Dec. 
7, 2003.

[11] "Editorial: The Wrong Proliferation Message," New York Times June 8, 2004.

[12] Robert Schlesinger, "Senate OK's repeal of 'mininuke' ban," 
Boston Globe May 21, 2003.

[13] William J. Broad, "Chain Reaction: Facing a Second Nuclear Age," 
New York Times August 3, 2003.

[14] Walter Pincus, "CIA Head Predicts Nuclear Race," Washington Post 
Feb. 12, 2003.

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