Little Big Nukes

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The under-reported disbanding of a major nuclear oversight committee, along with a government push for increased funding of nuclear weapons research has some critics saying that the Bush administration’s aim to free the world of nuclear weapons doesn’t apply to the United States. According to Julian Borger of London’s Guardian, White House officials dissolved the national nuclear security administration (NNSA) advisory committee last wednesday. The committee was responsible for overseeing the NNSA on nuclear weapons issues, as well as holding public hearings and publishing public reports on nuclear weapons information. While federal oversight committees are expected to disband after two years, the NNSA committee’s charter predicted long term need.

The committee’s disbanding may be a source of frustration to its members, but, according to Borger, it’s hardly a surprise. The committee was supposed to meet four times yearly, but according to prominent physicist and committee member and Sidney Drell, its members were rarely called upon, and it did not meet at all in the past year.

“‘I presume they did not value us or found us a nuisance.’

‘They just didn’t call us. We didn’t hear from them,’ Prof Drell said.”

Borger reports that the termination of federal advisory committees requires notification of the federal register. But the NNSA ignored this stipulation, quietly notifying members of the committee by email.

The committee’s dissolution coincides with the Bush adminstration’s slow but perserverant push to expand research into nuclear weapons. Three weeks ago, a Senate subcommittee approved the funding for research into weapons known as “bunker busters” and “mini-nukes.” Though some are ten times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, the weapons aim to destroy small targets rather than entire cities and are technically considered “low-yield” nuclear weapons (think Jumbo Shrimp). According to the Associated Press, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) finds the weapons’ nomenclature misleading, saying that “the mini-nukes and bunker busting warheads will make nuclear weapons more acceptable for use … They make these weapons appear just like other (conventional) weapons and they are not.”

The AP also reports that the Bush administration requested $68 million for the development of the warheads and for “research into other advanced nuclear weapons technology.” Borger notes that a leaked agenda for an August meeting of Pentagon and energy department officials said they would “discuss how to test small numbers of these new weapons, and whether this will require a break from the moratorium on nuclear tests.” The relatively surreptitous manner in which the Bush administration has cut nuclear oversight and furthered nuclear weapons research has critics charging the US with rank hypocrisy when it comes to fighting nuclear proliferation. In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) writes that the White House’s attitude toward nuclear weapons could give birth to a new arms race:

“At the recent G-8 summit, administration officials and G-8 members called the spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons ‘the preeminent threat to national security”‘ and expanded their commitment to fight it.

But while some administration officials were in France saying one thing, others were working to relax a ban on the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons, or ‘mini nukes,’ to fund research on a powerful ‘bunker buster’ nuclear weapon and to accelerate the time frame to resume underground nuclear testing.

These new nuclear weapons are of highly questionable wisdom and utility. They were not asked for by the military. And they will end the notion that nuclear weapons are weapons of last resort.”

Critics of the administration find the direction of federal funds toward weapons development frustrating, to say the least. But the real skeptics see a more pressing dilemma: In a time of yet-to-be justified war and a hawkish administration, where will this research lead us? Heather Wokusch of the Guerilla News Network reports:

“The House and Senate recently ditched the ban on researching low-yield nuclear devices, and approved funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a bunker-busting weapon said to be 10 times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. The justification? Nuclear weapons will only be researched, not tested or deployed.

Small coincidence that the House and Senate simultaneously called for accelerated resumption of underground nuclear testing on U.S. soil. The message is clear: Research nuclear weapons today, test and deploy them tomorrow.”

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This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

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