A U.S. plan to develop a new hydrogen bomb could
spark production of new nuclear weapons by other countries, including several
foes of the Bush administration, warn some of the nation's leading arms control
and disarmament advocacy groups.
Last Friday, the Department of Energy announced it was seeking to develop a
new hydrogen bomb that would replace the existing W76 warhead now deployed on
submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Many analysts say the Bush administration's plan would undermine international
efforts to control the spread of nuclear arms and would provide justification
to those countries currently suspected of trying to build such weapons.
"It will not convince the Iranian Scylla, North Korean Charybdis, or any
other less attention-grabbing nascent nuclear state that the U.S. is serious
about dampening the political value of nuclear weapons in its security policy,"
says Travis Sharp, a research fellow at the Washington, DC-based Center for
Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
The Bush administration has justified the move by arguing that the condition
of existing warheads essentially demands that a new hydrogen bomb be developed
in the next two decades, but experts on nuclear weapons find this line of reasoning
out of step with reality on the ground.
"The administration claims [it] is necessary in order to maintain long-term
confidence in the future stockpile," says John Isaacs, "but the fact
is that the U.S. stockpile has been confirmed 'safe and reliable' for at least
another half century," noting that the effectiveness of the existing stockpile
is based on 50 years of research and over 1,000 underground nuclear tests.
Other nuclear policy experts agree with Isaacs' view that the plan to build
the new hydrogen bomb is unjustified.
"The main reason for new nuclear weapons – possible uncertainties about
whether the specified projected yield of the existing weapons would remain precisely
reliable – was recently invalidated by both the national nuclear weapon labs
scientists and independent experts," says Leonor Tomero, a non-proliferation
policy expert at the Center.
Last November, a study carried out by American weapons laboratories and reviewed
by JASON, an independent government advisory body of nuclear scientists, revealed
that plutonium pits (the cores that trigger nuclear weapons) remain viable for
at least 90 years.
"The concern was never that the existing weapons would not detonate,"
according to Tomero, "the concern was that the weapons would not detonate
at their precise expected yield. Even that is no longer a valid concern now."
Despite the end of the Cold War in 1991, the United States continues to possess
thousands of nuclear weapons. In addition to the United States, other major
powers that have built huge nuclear arsenals include Russia, Britain, France,
Currently the five countries combined have more than 36,000 nuclear warheads
in their possession, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research
Institute (SIPRI), a Sweden-based think tank.
In addition to the declared nuclear powers, India, Pakistan, and Israel are
also believed to be in possession of hundreds of nuclear weapons and at this
point, unlike Iran, which has joined international agreements against the spread
of nuclear weapons, none of them seems willing to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
As Iran continues to claim that it has no intention to build nuclear weapons,
in response to Western criticisms and suspicions surrounding its nuclear program
it often points out the presence of thousands of nuclear weapons in the possession
of the United States.
On Monday, a new report from a leading British scientist concluded that a military
strike, rather than setting back Iran's nuclear program, could actually speed
up the country's production of a nuclear weapon.
"[It] would certainly lead to a fast-track program to develop a small
number of nuclear devices as quickly as possible," said Dr. Frank Barry,
the report's author, about the likely Iranian reaction to any U.S. military
Sponsored by the Oxford Research Group, an independent charity based in Britain,
the study concluded that if Iran was moving toward nuclear-weapon capacity,
it was doing so "relatively slowly," with most estimates suggesting
that no weapon would be produced within the next five years.
In his report, Dr. Barry argued that it is "much more likely" that,
following an attack, all resources would be focused on the manufacture of "one
or two crude" devices. "This realignment of Iran's nuclear program
towards a so-called 'crash program' could lead to a nuclear armed Iran within
one or two years," he said.
The report's conclusions were fully backed by Dr. Hans Blix, the former UN
chief nuclear inspector and head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
"Armed attacks on Iran would very likely lead to the results they were
meant to avoid – the building of nuclear weapons in three years," Blix said
in a foreword to the report.
In addition to their concerns about the negative implications for non-proliferation,
some critics in Washington, such as Isaacs, worry that the focus of George W.
Bush's new nuclear policy could harm U.S. interests.
"Costly warheads won't help the U.S. win the counterinsurgency campaigns
in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Isaacs, "and non-state actors like
al-Qaeda do not respond to classic Cold War state-to-state nuclear deterrence."
For this fiscal year, Bush is seeking more than $118 million to fund development
of the new nuclear weapons (also known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program).
Noting that Bush's request for the new weapons is almost five times greater
than the amount he asked for last year, experts at the Center say costs are
likely to go much higher as the new weapons program moves into the production
phase between 2009 and 2012.
Last Friday the Los Angeles Times reported that over the next two decades
the cost of developing the new bomb might grow into the tens of billions of
(Inter Press Service)