Nuclear bunker busters under scrutiny

February 26, 2003

WHAT are the risks to civilians if the US military ever uses the "bunker-busting" nuclear weapon that the Bush administration is developing? That's the question scientists are set to investigate as a condition of further funding for the project.

While the controversial Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) programme has been awarded $15 million development funding this year, with the same amount likely next year, a new clause attached to the funding calls for the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to investigate what effect any use of the weapon would have. The clause was added by moderates when the Senate and House of Representatives met to finalise the Defense Authorization Act, published last week. The demand comes on top of a requirement that the military assess conventional alternatives (see next week's issue of New Scientist).

The RNEP would be designed to plunge 30 metres or more into the ground before detonating a nuclear warhead. This would make it far more effective against buried targets, say advocates, who claim that it will produce less fallout than airburst nuclear weapons. But critics claim that it is physically impossible for the weapon to bury itself deep enough to contain a nuclear explosion, and that radioactive fallout would contaminate a wide area.

While the NAS has yet to begin work on its RNEP study, it is promising a rigorous report. "The NAS will not be influenced by political pressure from the government or the military," says a spokesman. "We are independent." He added that the report will also examine whether using the weapon against a bunker full of biological or chemical agents could release the agents rather than destroy them. The military believes the high temperature and radiation burst will neutralise such agents.

"The NAS study is certainly a step in the right direction," says Jim Bridgman, director of a pressure group called the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability based in Washington DC. But because a negative assessment is likely to be contested by the Pentagon, he thinks the study is more likely to merely delay rather than halt RNEP's development.
Author: David Hambling

New Scientist issue: 1 March 2003


"These articles are posted on this site to give advance access to other authorised media who may wish to quote extracts as part of fair dealing with this copyrighted material. Full attribution is required, and if publishing online a link to is also required. Advance permission is required before any and every reproduction of each article in full - please contact Please note that all material is copyright of Reed Business Information Limited and we reserve the right to take such action as we consider appropriate to protect such copyright."


UK CONTACT - Claire Bowles, New Scientist Press Office, London:
Tel: 44-207-331-2751 or email
US CONTACT - Michelle Soucy, New Scientist Boston Office:
Tel: 617-558-4939 or email

New Scientist

Related Nuclear Articles from Brightsurf:

Explosive nuclear astrophysics
An international team has made a key discovery related to 'presolar grains' found in some meteorites.

Nuclear medicine and COVID-19: New content from The Journal of Nuclear Medicine
In one of five new COVID-19-related articles and commentaries published in the June issue of The Journal of Nuclear Medicine, Johnese Spisso discusses how the UCLA Hospital System has dealt with the pandemic.

Going nuclear on the moon and Mars
It might sound like science fiction, but scientists are preparing to build colonies on the moon and, eventually, Mars.

Unused stockpiles of nuclear waste could be more useful than we might think
Chemists have found a new use for the waste product of nuclear power -- transforming an unused stockpile into a versatile compound which could be used to create valuable commodity chemicals as well as new energy sources.

Six degrees of nuclear separation
For the first time, Argonne scientists have printed 3D parts that pave the way to recycling up to 97 percent of the waste produced by nuclear reactors.

How to dismantle a nuclear bomb
MIT team successfully tests a new method for verification of weapons reduction.

Material for nuclear reactors to become harder
Scientists from NUST MISIS developed a unique composite material that can be used in harsh temperature conditions, such as those in nuclear reactors.

Nuclear physics -- probing a nuclear clock transition
Physicists have measured the energy associated with the decay of a metastable state of the thorium-229 nucleus.

Milestones on the way to the nuclear clock
For decades, people have been searching for suitable atomic nuclei for building an ultra-precise nuclear clock.

Nuclear winter would threaten nearly everyone on Earth
If the United States and Russia waged an all-out nuclear war, much of the land in the Northern Hemisphere would be below freezing in the summertime, with the growing season slashed by nearly 90 percent in some areas, according to a Rutgers-led study.

Read More: Nuclear News and Nuclear Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to