US INCHES TOWARD NEW WARHEADS: MINI-NUKES

Tiny things are trendy. Fancy restaurants feature small servings. Laptop computers get more micro all the time. Cookies come bite-size. Some United States scientists are even pushing for mini-nuclear weapons.

Tiny atomic explosions? Isn't that kind of a contradiction in terms?

Not necessarily. The Department of Energy (DOE) is now funding research into precision low-yield nuclear warheads. These so-called mini-nukes would primarily be intended to threaten the bunkers and weapons of nuclear-armed third-world nations.

This new generation of small nuclear weapons would emit much less radiation, theoretically causing much less collateral damage to civilian targets.

Work is being carried out under Project PLYWD (Precision Low-Yield Weapons Design), begun at Air Force urging in 1991. For fiscal year 1994, the DOE budget request includes funds to wrap up PLYWD's first phase, largely a mission analysis and feasibility study. The request also asks for money to enter Phase 2.

Scientists at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs are doing most of the mini-nuke research.

The micro-warheads are intended to be mounted on the tips of precision earth-penetration weapons. Some PLYWD proponents go so far as to say that with a few technical advances a mini-nuke strike might emit no radiation above ground at all, making it little different from conventional-weapon strikes.

Politically there would be an enormous difference. And one source with access to PLYWD detail says its radiation emission, and hence its collateral damage, would vary greatly with the geology of its target.

Lab officials characterize mini-nuke research as nothing but a paper study to this point. There is widespread skepticism within the government about whether the idea will ever progress beyond that stage.

But one critic of the effort argues that that's not the point. The mere fact that the US is looking at mini-nukes sets a bad precedent, especially when Ukraine is considering whether to retain nuclear weapons and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is coming up for renewal.

"We have to lead by example," says William Arkin, a Greenpeace researcher who has an article on mini-nukes in an upcoming issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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