National Nuclear Security Administration chief Linton Brooks twice pressed weapons-lab directors last week to "take advantage of this opportunity" raised by repeal last month of a 1993 ban on low-yield nuclear weapons development.
Critics of the administration's new nuclear policies say the Dec. 5 memo suggests a no-holds-barred approach to designing new weapons that is more reminiscent of a Cold War arms race -- without a competitor -- than trying to curb the spread of nuclear weapons.
"This is really very distressing," said physicist and public policy professor Frank von Hippel, co-director of Princeton's Program on Science and Global Security. "They're saying, 'Go after it, guys. We're back in the fifties. Come up with all the crazy ideas you can -- if there are any crazy ideas left out there.' This is fossil Cold War mentality surfacing again."
President Bush signed a defense bill Nov. 24 that contained the repeal and re-established "advanced concepts" weapons design teams at Law- rence Livermore, Los Alamos and Sandia labs for the first time since the mid-1990s.
"I expect your design teams to engage fully with the Department of Defense to examine advanced (thermonuclear) concepts that could contribute to our nation's security," Brooks wrote. "Potentially important areas of such research include agent defeat and reduced collateral damage."
Agent defeat and reduced collateral damage are the latest lingo for nuclear weapons to attack stores of chemical and biological arms and for low-yield bombs that penetrate the ground before detonating.
"In addition, we must take advantage of this opportunity to ensure that we close any gaps that may have opened this past decade in our understanding of the possible military applications of atomic energy -- no novel nuclear weapons concept developed by any other nation should ever come as a technical surprise to us," Brooks wrote.
While U.S. weapons scientists often have designed and built mockups of foreign nuclear weapons to assess their value, these assessments were exempted from the low-yield ban and do not entail designing new U.S. weapons.
On behalf of the administration, Brooks expressed gratitude to the three lab directors -- Livermore's Michael Anastasio, Los Alamos' G. Pete Nanos and Sandia labs' C. Paul Robinson -- for backing repeal of the low-yield ban.
"I would like to thank you and your staff for helping to support this important effort," Brooks wrote. "We are now free to explore a range of technical options that could strengthen our ability to deter, or respond to new or emerging threats without any concern that some ideas could violate some vague and arbitrary limitation."
The sentiment is noteworthy: The three lab directors -- two executives of the University of California and one of Lockheed Martin -- are typically discouraged from lobbying Congress, especially in pursuit of new nuclear weapons.
The memo was leaked Wednesday to the Los Alamos Study Group, an Albuquerque, N.M.-based disarmament organization.
"It's kind of cry havoc and release the dogs of nuclear design," said study group director Greg Mello.
He suggested the memo marked a shift from disciplined public service claimed by lab contractors such as the University of California to "nuclear opportunism" timed with the Bush administration.
"I think it means that all weapons concepts are on the table. Let's look at nuclear-driven radio-frequency weapons, let's look at neutron bombs and agent defeat and earth penetrators. Let's look at even more advanced concepts," he said. "You don't sense a lot of restraint here."
Ian Hoffman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
In December 2001, civilian leaders in the Pentagon called for new weapons designs in a still-classified Nuclear Posture Review. Since then, defense and Energy Department officials and allies in Congress have argued that the current U.S. arsenal of 7,000 deployed weapons was full of such high-yield bombs and warheads that an adversary might be emboldened to attack, thinking the United States never would retaliate.
We should not fail to take advantage of this opportunity, Brooks wrote in closing his memo.
Yet the Bush administration has avoided mentioning that all existing U.S. nuclear weapons are multi-staged devices, easily adjusted or modified for at least three explosive yields. Every bomb and warhead can be detonated at the equivalent of a few hundred tons of high-explosive, the definition of mini-nuke.
Suggesting the nation needs new, low-yield bombs, says retired Sandia weapons executive Robert Peurifoy, is a con game that he suspects is aimed at restarting nuclear testing.
Tell me what yield you want and I can give it to you within the present
inventory, Peurifoy said. I do not understand this present argument that
we are at some disadvantage with respect to the Chinese and the Russians
or whoever. We can do any damn thing we want to do today, without nuclear