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, and China.
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 Treaty.
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 action.
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 dollars.
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