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U.S. ‘fudges’ end to weapons buildup

NCR Staff

Nuclear weapons issues have not gone away, and the United States is closing out the year with new breeches of the spirit of disarmament and in the traditional wall separating civilian involvement in nuclear arms development.

Though nuclear weapons building is no longer in the national headlines -- “The arms race pretty much ended with the START process,” said Lt. Col Piers Wood, senior fellow at the Center for Defense Information -- the United States continues to “fudge around the edges a bit with its inimitable inability to set a good example to the rest of the world.”

Interviewed by NCR, Wood said that while no new nuclear weapons can be developed, the United States gets around this by “upgrading” its bombs. The key example, he said, is to make the B-61 bomb earth penetrating (so it can penetrate deep bunkers before exploding) and calling it the B-61-11.

William Arkin, in the latest issue of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, wrote, “No new nukes, huh?” He listed a half-dozen developments he says show that the Clinton administration/Defense Department/Energy Department/Strategic Command concept of the pledge is “a pretty elastic idea.”

There is a “plethora” of “next generation work,” Arkin wrote, including a “modified” B-61 glide bomb to replace the short range attack missile; a submarine-launched ballistic missile warhead protection program to replace Navy W76 warheads with “newly minted” warheads; B-83 bomb improvements for the B-2 bomber armory; a new submarine-launched ballistic missile system; a new ballistic missile submarine; and possible “black budget” projects such as the high-power radio frequency warheads and the “insertable nuclear warheads” to carry aboard ships that normally carry conventional warheads.

Wood, a former “nuclear” infantry officer, said that for 22 years the Center for Defense Information has said that “nuclear weapons are militarily useless.”

“They have no value except as weapons of terror,” he said. “One who possesses nuclear weapons terrorizes the other possessors of weapons into paralysis. And based on this paralysis, some conservative people in the United States, a lot of them in Congress, have come to believe this nuclear deterrence works. [Senate majority leader] Trent Lott says we need to maintain nuclear deterrence. I don’t understand him, or [Sen. Pete] Domenici or [Sen. Richard] Lugar. If a terrorist sets off a nuclear weapon in a U.S. city, and we have some 7,000 operational nuclear weapons, whom do we bomb? That’s what I ask these folks.”

Wood said, “I’m not a pacifist. I believe in a strong defense, always have. But for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make [nuclear weapons] useful.”

Despite such sentiments, on Dec. 8, the United States for the first time gave civilian commerce a key role in nuclear weapons production with a Tennessee Valley Authority-U.S. Energy Department agreement that allows the TVA to make nuclear weapons material in a commercial reactor.

Meanwhile, American peace activists who continue to hammer on B-52 bombers and Minuteman III silos can’t figure out why such weapons continue to exist. The century ends with three Plowshares activists in jail. As recently as August, actor-protester Martin Sheen was one of 75 peace protesters taken into custody at Los Alamos National Laboratory. The issue was the lab’s $4.5 billion annual program to maintain and upgrade indefinitely the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Sheen said recently he intended to protest in Nevada at year’s end and would likely start the new century in jail. He invited others to do the same.

It has been a busy two decades for anti-nuclear protesters across a wide-ranging spectrum. According to the publication The Nuclear Resister, since 1983 more than 43,000 people have been arrested for nuclear resistance in the United States and Canada. The arrests were made during some 1,600 actions at nuclear laboratories, missile sites, nuclear waste sites and shipyards building nuclear-powered or nuclear missile-carrying vessels, as well as along nuclear waste transportation routes.

The Nuclear Resister said 1998 arrests showed a decline, though there were 650 arrests at 25 different sites (including several Plowshares actions). Authorities are displaying a tendency to lead people away and not formally charge them.

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999