Nukes in the Middle East War Theater? Low-Yield Earth-Penetrating Nuclear Weapons

Fig. 1 Diagrams like this one give the false impression that a low-yield earth penetrating nuclear weapon would “limit collateral damage” and therefore be relatively safe to use. In fact, because of the large amount of radioactive dirt thrown out in the explosion, the hypothetical 5-kiloton weapon discussed in the accompanying article would produce a large area of lethal fallout. (Philadelphia Inquirer/ Cynthia Greer, 16 October 2000.)

Despite the global sense of relief and hope that the nuclear arms race ended with the Cold War, an increasingly vocal group of politicians, military officials and leaders of America’s nuclear weapon laboratories are urging the US to develop a new generation of precision low-yield nuclear weapons. Rather than deterring warfare with another nuclear power, however, they suggest these weapons could be used in conventional conflicts with third-world nations.

Critics argue that adding low-yield warheads to the world’s nuclear inventory simply makes their eventual use more likely. In fact, a 1994 law currently prohibits the nuclear laboratories from undertaking research and development that could lead to a precision nuclear weapon of less than 5 kilotons (KT), because “low-yield nuclear weapons blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional war.”

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