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Nuclear weapons research

Need for new bomb tests questioned.

Bush supports new weapon designs. Credit: © Punchstock

Late in 2002, the Bush administration proposed controversial plans to begin work on new designs for nuclear weapons. The idea has prompted fierce scientific and political opposition ever since.

The work was needed, according to a confidential Pentagon document, to determine whether the United States' earth-penetrating nuclear weapons could be used to destroy deeply buried bunkers in other nations that might house chemical or biological weapons.

In addition, Bush argues that the work will invigorate the minds of nuclear-weapons scientists and help them to respond more quickly to new threats. Such researchers have been consigned to maintaining the nation's stockpile of nearly 9,000 weapons since the end of the cold war.

Presidential challenger John Kerry takes the opposite stance. "I would end the pursuit of a new generation of nuclear weapons," he told Nature. Kerry believes that restarting the work will only encourage countries such as Iran and North Korea to advance their own weapons programmes. Stashes of chemical or biological weapons could be better ferreted out by élite military units, he argues.

A nuclear bomb detonated below ground would not necessarily destroy a large chemical or biological stockpile, says Robert Nelson, a physicist at Princeton University, New Jersey, and a scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations, because its heat is largely contained by rock and earth. But Nelson's analysis shows that it would spew a cloud of radioactive dirt into the atmosphere. "If you used such a bomb anywhere near a population centre, it would kill a lot of people," he says.

As for the need to keep the nation's nuclear scientists on their feet, existing programmes should be able to do the job, says physicist Sidney Drell at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in California. Making sure that nuclear weapons work without actually testing them requires researchers to develop highly sophisticated computer models to simulate a nuclear blast. "A good stockpile-stewardship programme is a major challenge to the minds of scientists," says Drell, who has been involved in establishing such programmes.

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Brumfiel, G. Nuclear weapons research. Nature (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/news040913-9

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