Bush's nuclear security chief defends new research on low-yield weapons

Brooks rejects criticism that decision could lead to renewal of arms race

January 14, 2004|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush's top nuclear security administrator defended yesterday the administration's decision to begin research on a new generation of low-yield nuclear weapons, dismissing any notion that such research might lead to the development of new weapons or to a renewal of a Cold War-style arms race.

In a rare interview with reporters, Linton F. Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said that Congress' recent repeal of a 1992 ban on such research would help keep weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile up-to-date and effective.

Congress had banned such testing in an effort to bring the nuclear arms race with the former Soviet Union to a halt. The ban was overturned in November, at the Bush administration's urging, under a defense authorization bill that Congress passed and the president signed.

"Research and development is about looking at a variety of things, including improving safety and security of existing designs, making existing designs more robust in the absence of testing," Brooks said.

"I am not uncomfortable looking other nations in the eye and saying what is absolutely true: The United States is a strong supporter of nonproliferation," he said.

Brooks' comments were, in part, an attempt by the administration to deflect criticism from groups that oppose nuclear weapons and some members of Congress who objected to a memo he wrote that was leaked to the Los Alamos Study Group, a nonproliferation think tank in New Mexico.

In the Dec. 5 memo, Brooks enthusiastically informs the directors of the nation's three largest nuclear labs of the ban's repeal and says, "We should not fail to take advantage of this opportunity."

"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 inadvertently violate a vague and arbitrary limitation.

"I expect your design teams to engage fully," he writes.

Critics of the policy shift charged that the letter's tone seemed unnecessarily celebratory and reflected a desire to push beyond research into actual development and testing.

"It's the first significant commitment to what amounts to a kind of arms race," said Greg Mello, executive director of the Los Alamos group.

International accords have barred the development of new nuclear weapons since the early 1990s. Some continuing research on weapons that already existed was permitted.

Brooks suggested yesterday that, given the threats the nation faces today, the administration needs to research low-yield nuclear weapons that could act like "bunker busters" to destroy underground terrorist facilities, rather than the older-generation nuclear weapons that were designed to reach the Soviet Union.

The newer "mini-nukes" would still carry about one-third the force of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In explaining why the United States should move ahead on the mini-nukes, Brooks said he believes Russia is doing its own "research and development" on nuclear weapons.

"As long as we have nuclear weapons, they have to be safe, secure and reliable and effective" against the latest threats, he said.

Nonetheless, he said, other nations should refrain from their own such research.

Senate Democrats, as well as nonproliferation advocates, have voiced objections to such reasoning and said most foreign nations would not accept it.

"It's like telling your kids not to smoke when you have a two-pack-a-day habit," said Joseph Cirincione, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

Even more dangerous, critics argued, is the subtle yet decisive shift of U.S. policy away from having nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterrence.

"This is dangerous new territory, and it suggests we're lowering the nuclear threshold," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington.

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