Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Tactically Nuking Iran

Ever since the true horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki emerged nearly sixty years ago, a world-wide taboo against using nuclear weapons has evolved. Embodied in such international pacts as the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and responsible for various nuclear disarmament plans, that taboo is clearly being nibbled at by the US in its sabre rattling agains Iran. In today's NY Times, Michael Levi, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a co-author of "The Future of Arms Control," offers a more pragmatic response to the hinted-at use of "tactical" nuclear weapons, "bunker-busters." According to Mr. Levi, these weapons just aren't needed.

THERE has been a lot of debate over reports that the United States is exploring the use of tactical nuclear weapons against Iran. Setting aside the question of whether military action is wise — and there are strong arguments for focusing on nonmilitary options — one thing is clear: the nuclear option makes little sense.

...In general, there are three intertwined reasons military planners might consider using nuclear weapons against an underground target: uncertainty about the target's location, concern that the depth makes conventional weapons impotent, and a need to destroy the target near-instantaneously. None of these apply in the case of Iran.

...In the end, the nuclear option makes little sense — and flirting with it undermines the American stance against nuclear proliferation. Taking nuclear weapons decisively off the table would reinforce the taboo against the bomb, and make American actions to oppose proliferation more effective.
[Emphasis added]

What Mr. Levi doesn't mention is that there are more serious reasons for not using nuclear bunker-busters. Those reasons are outlined more clearly at the Union of Concerned Scientists web site on the issue.

May 2005

The Bush Administration has again requested funding from Congress to research a new type of nuclear bomb. The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) is a nuclear weapon that would burrow a few meters into rock or concrete before exploding and thus generating a powerful underground shock wave. Its hypothetical targets are deeply buried command bunkers or underground storage sites containing chemical or biological agents.

The RNEP budget: RNEP is not just a feasibility study: the Department of Energy's 2005 budget included a five-year projection—totaling $484.7 million—for the weapons laboratories to produce a completed warhead design and begin production engineering by 2009.

...Technical realities:

According to several recent scientific studies, RNEP would not be effective at destroying many underground targets, and its use could result in the death of millions of people.

* RNEP would produce tremendous radioactive fallout: A nuclear earth penetrator cannot penetrate deep enough to contain the nuclear fallout. Even the strongest casing will crush itself by the time it penetrates 10-30 feet into rock or concrete. For comparison, even a one-kiloton nuclear warhead (less than 1/10th as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb) must be buried at least 200-300 feet to contain its radioactive fallout. The high yield RNEP will produce tremendous fallout that will drift for more than a thousand miles downwind. As, Linton Brooks, the head of the National Nuclear Security Administration told Congress in April, "the laws of physics will [never allow a bomb to penetrate] far enough to trap all fallout. This is a nuclear weapon that is going to be hugely destructive over a large area" if it goes off underground.

* RNEP could kill millions of people: A simulation of RNEP used against the Esfahan nuclear facility in Iran, using the software developed for the Pentagon, showed that 3 million people would be killed by radiation within 2 weeks of the explosion, and 35 million people in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India would be exposed to increased levels of cancer-causing radiation.
[Emphasis added]

These are the lessons we should have learned from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The death toll would be high, and more than our putative enemies would be horribly affected.

If the US is really serious about the issue of nuclear non-proliferation, the avowed reason for its concern with Iran, swearing off the use of the very weapons the US would deny Iran would place this nation in a much stronger position diplomatically. Of course, that assumes that the US is really serious about nuclear non-proliferation in this instance.


Post a Comment

<< Home