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Nuclear-weapons challenges rise

Bush and Pentagon call for new kinds of nukes - and a missile defense system - as bombs' toxic legacy lingers.

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At a time when all eyes are on fighting what the Pentagon calls the "Global War on Terrorism," the United States is having to address the past, present, and future of nuclear conflict.

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• Sixty years after the Manhattan Project produced the first and only atomic bombs ever dropped on an enemy, the US continues to struggle with how to permanently dispose of the radioactive and chemical byproducts of its cold-war weapons of mass destruction. The Senate recently voted to allow the Energy Department to reclassify such waste so that it could stay in place, even though some of it is leaking into the air and ground water.

• As the nature of warfare changes, the Bush administration is considering new kinds of nuclear bombs. These include smaller "tactical nukes" meant to pack a bigger punch than any conventional weapon, as well as "bunker busters" designed to penetrate an enemy's deep command and weapons-storage sites.

• And in case Russia, North Korea, or some other nuclear power should fire missiles at the US, the administration is pushing ahead on ground-based systems to try to knock down incoming warheads.

Some experts see signs that space-based missile defenses - of the type envisioned in former President Reagan's "star wars" initiative 20 years ago - may be in the works as well.

All of this is highly controversial and very expensive.

Defending against missile attack

Last month, 31 former government officials urged the Bush administration to delay the national missile-defense deployment scheduled for later this year. Interceptor missiles are to be deployed in Alaska and California. These former senior defense and arms-control officials, representing every administration since Dwight Eisenhower's, say the Bush program is "missing major components." "This is like rolling out a new automobile that is missing tires, steering wheel, and brakes and hasn't been tested on the open road," says Philip Coyle, former Pentagon chief of operational test and evaluation.

In his first year as president, Mr. Bush unilaterally withdrew the United States from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which had been designed to preserve the longstanding regime of "mutual assured destruction" by denying either the US or the former Soviet Union the ability to launch a first strike and survive. Like Mr. Reagan, Bush and other critics of the ABM Treaty believe the US should be able to defend itself not only from Russian missiles but from those launched by North Korea or other "rogue states."

Critics point to more likely threats not addressed by ballistic missile defenses: low-flying cruise missiles or "dirty bombs" filled with smuggled radioactive material.

Still, many see deployment of missile defenses as logical if not required for national security. "The threat has changed since the cold war," says military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute. "There are more countries with ballistic missiles, and their behavior is less predictable."

Nukes that go smaller, deeper

This same concern about a more complicated and more dangerous world also drives the administration's desire to accelerate research on nuclear weapons designed for 21st-century threats. "Nuclear attack options that vary in scale, scope, and purpose will complement other military capabilities [to deter] adversaries whose values and calculations of risk ... may be very different from and more difficult to discern than those of past adversaries," states the Pentagon's most recent Nuclear Posture Review.

That range of options is reflected in the Defense Authorization Bill now being considered by the Senate. It includes $27.6 million for the development of the 100-kiloton bunker buster and $9 million for new "low yield" weapons (less than 5 kilotons, or about one-third the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima).

The programs don't cost much, in Pentagon terms. But much is scheduled to be spent in coming years. And, coupled with Bush's attack-first approach to dealing with perceived enemies, a modernized nuclear arsenal raises alarms. "I am deeply concerned that this administration may well be encouraging the very nuclear proliferation we seek to prevent - through its policy of preemption combined with the pursuit of new nuclear weapons," says Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California.

A House subcommittee last week refused to provide money for a bunker buster, a low-yield nuke, and for a new plant to produce plutonium triggers for the warheads. The spending is also under attack in the Senate, as Senators Feinstein and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts seek this week to eliminate this year's funding for next-generation nukes.

Reclassifying weapons-site waste

Meanwhile, dealing with the oldest generation of nuclear weapons remains a serious problem. In South Carolina, Idaho, and Washington State, nuclear waste - some of it highly radioactive - has been stored for decades, waiting for a more permanent solution. In Washington, some of those buried storage tanks at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation have begun leaking, sending their toxic brew of radioactivity and chemicals used to produce plutonium into the ground water that flows into the nearby Columbia River.

A federal judge has ruled that under the 1982 Nuclear Waste Policy Act, the US Department of Energy (which oversees nuclear weapons programs) must dispose of high-level radioactive waste in deep underground vaults beneath Yucca Mountain, Nev. But as part of a defense authorization bill, the Senate recently voted to allow the Energy Department to reclassify sludge in some tanks so that it can stay in place. Safely turning it into a grout-like substance, proponents argue, could save billions of dollars. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) of Washington tried to amend the bill to remove that provision, but lost on a tie vote. She vows to keep fighting.

"There are 50 million gallons of radioactive waste at Hanford and I want it cleaned up," Senator Cantwell says.

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