Nuclear ambiguities

WE LIVE WITH nuclear perils of several kinds. Russia and the United States agree on reducing nuclear stockpiles, but disagree on whether to destroy them or store them, as the Bush administration proposes to do.

Many observers say that Iraq may be on its way to developing a nuclear bomb, and periodic leaks from the Bush administration suggest military intervention to abort it.

A captured terrorist leader says that Al Qaeda is close to having a crude nuclear device that could be smuggled into the United States. We are told that one dirty bomb – nuclear fuel wrapped around a conventional detonator – could affect half of Manhattan.

Even peaceful nuclear energy can set people on edge. April 16 happened to be the 16th anniversary of the Chernobyl atomic-energy-plant explosion in Ukraine. And today, children are being born with genetic mutations. Half a world away, people in south Nevada battle against depositing nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain.

A Brookings Institution report says that a successful attack on a nuclear power plant could result in 10,000 fatalities.

The Bush administration has a peculiarly ambivalent attitude about the nuclear danger. On the one hand, the president is devoting his energies to protecting us against the "axis of evil" and weapons of mass destruction.

On the other hand, his administration is moving closer to the edge of the nuclear abyss.

The most recent Nuclear Posture Review called for developing a small hydrogen bomb – an "advanced-concept nuclear weapon." To that end, initial studies are already in progress on something called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator that could reach deeply buried targets. The administration seems unconcerned about possibly becoming the first since Hiroshima and Nagasaki to explode a nuclear weapon in anger.

But the most mystifying of all is the way the White House is skimping on protection from nuclear danger. According to The New York Times, the Energy Department complained that budget director Mitchell Daniels cut 93 percent of the money that Secretary Spencer Abraham had wanted for nuclear security.

The $380 million request was part of a $27 billion emergency bill, and it covered such items as security for weapons storage and cleanup, security for nuclear science facilities, and a National Center for Combating Terrorism.

Administration officials are quoted as saying that nuclear security is at a high level and adequate to meet the nuclear threat. Well, maybe, but you would think that an administration spending billions for tanks that the military doesn't want might put a little extra effort into nuclear protection.

• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.

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