Promoted by Steven D.

The prospect of a U.S. attack on Iran is unnerving. But the task of preventing that attack, and especially of preventing the use of nuclear weapons, is not helped by incorrect charges and information, such as yesterday’s panic in the blogosphere over a bomb test in Nevada long scheduled for early June. Unless everyone concerned is lying–which of course given this administration’s record, is entirely possible–it will be the biggest non-nuclear explosion ever seen. However big, and however related it may be to the effort to create a nuclear”bunker-buster” bomb, it is still non-nuclear. Calling it a “nuclear explosion” is not helpful. Because, well, it’s not. And the distinction matters.

Oppose it for any number of reasons, including its possible purpose, or the fact that it is being held on land long claimed by the Western Shoshones, a claim upheld by the UN. But please don’t call it nuclear.

Besides starting a dubious panic over an irradiated Yearly Kos,why it this important?  What does “nuclear” really mean in the context of Iran?  Please read on.
Not only does this feed the image of “wild speculation” that the Bushites would like to tar its opposition with, but in particular, the nature of so-called conventional weapons and of nuclear weapons should not be confused. That only plays into the strategy and perhaps even the beliefs of the Bushites.

As Senator Feinstein wrote last Sunday:

” There are some in this administration who have been pushing to make nuclear weapons more “usable.” They see nuclear weapons as an extension of conventional weapons. This is pure folly.”

Sy Hersh made the same point in his New Yorker piece. He quotes a former senior intelligence official:

He went on, “Nuclear planners go through extensive training and learn the technical details of damage and fallout–we’re talking about mushroom clouds, radiation, mass casualties, and contamination over years. This is not an underground nuclear test, where all you see is the earth raised a little bit. These politicians don’t have a clue, and whenever anybody tries to get it out”–remove the nuclear option–“they’re shouted down.”

Writing about the planning for an Iran attack, William Arkin in the Washington Post:

The new task force, sources have told me, mostly worries that if it were called upon to deliver “prompt” global strikes against certain targets in Iran under some emergency circumstances, the president might have to be told that the only option is a nuclear one.

The military understands the difference between nuclear and non-nuclear in terms of the physical effects and the geopolitical effects. The geopolitical effects have to do with the fact that no nation possessing a nuclear weapon has ever used it against an enemy, not in the 61 years since the U.S. bombed two cities in Japan, when it was the only nation in the world that had atomic weapons.

That nations have never used nuclear weapons has been perhaps the world’s only achievement in preventing civilization’s self-destruction.

That’s all I will say about the political difference in this post. I’ll also save the moral argument for another post. In this post I want to emphasize the physical difference of nuclear weapons. Even this won’t be complete in one go. So much of this is embedded in history. It will take some time to explain.

I am not a scientist. I am attempting to report as accurately as I can what has been written on this subject. First, on the nuclear attack on Iran. Then on a bit of early atomic history, to flesh out what this might mean.

Bunker Busting

The bomb in the US arsenal most often mentioned as the “bunker-buster” is the B61-11. There is some uncertainty about its yield. Some say it has a fixed yield of 10 kilotons. Others that it has a variable yield of up to 340 kilotons. Compared to other nuclear bombs the US possesses, this is relatively small. On the other hand, the yield of the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki were between 15 and 20 kilotons.

But the B61-11 can’t penetrate rock. To destroy a bunker 1,000 feet below the surface would require a larger bomb, on the order of 1.2 megatons, as in the proposed Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. According to the National Academy of Sciences, the blast from this weapon would create a crater 1,200 feet wide, and the explosion would send some 300,000 tons of radioactive debris 15 miles into the sky. They estimate the total casualities could exceed one million.

In a scenario developed by Physicians for Social Responsibility, an attack on a bunker in Iran with a 1.2 megaton weapon would kill over 3 million people, and expose some 35 million people in Iran, Pakistan, India and Afghanistan to significant radiation, including the 20,000 Americans deployed in the region for the war on terrorists.

As far as we know, a “bunker buster” weapon with this size yield does not yet exist. So the US is apparently considering using the smaller yield B61-11 even though it can’t penetrate to 1,000 feet. Supposing it is used, what would be its effects?

The Physicians for Social Responsibility point out the common misconception that sending an atom bomb into the ground—an Earth Penetrating Weapon (EPW) lessens the radioactive fallout. That’s not true. “A nuclear EPW would actually create more fallout than a ground-burst or airburst weapon, due to the increased distribution of radioactive debris from detonation at a shallow depth in soil or rock,” the report says.

The report quotes the congressional testimony of Ambassador Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration:

“I really must apologize for my lack of precision if we in the administration have suggested that it was possible to have a bomb that penetrated far enough to trap all fall-out. I don’t believe the laws of physics will ever let that be true. It is certainly not what we’re trying to do now. What we are trying is to get in the ground far enough so that the energy goes deep into the ground to hold at risk the deeply buried facilities. But it is very important for this committee to recognize what we on our side recognize… There is a nuclear weapon that is going to be hugely destructive over a large area. No sane person would use a weapon like that lightly… I do want to make it clear that any thought of …nuclear weapons that aren’t really destructive is just nuts.”

Probably the major physical difference of nuclear weapons, apart from sheer power–which vaporizes and incinerates people– is lethal radioactivity. The effects of radioactivity alone kills people within 60 seconds, then in days, and then in weeks and months. In those it doesn’t kill, it suppresses the immune system and can cause cancers and other diseases, and it may cause genetic abnormalities in the next generation.

Radioactive fallout from a bunker buster carrying even a one kiloton bomb is not contained beneath the ground. It rises in the soil to the surface and into the air. Winds disperse it farther.

Standardizing Catastrophe

Atomic bombs have been used directly on people only twice. There are no exact statistics, but the ones generally accepted (I take them from “The Bomb: A Life” by Gerard DeGroot) are these: Some 75,000 people died immediately in Hiroshima in the blast and fire. After five years, some 200,000 had died from the Bomb. (p.95). The Hiroshima bomb was approximately 15 kilotons.

In Nagasaki, some 40,000 people were killed in the blast, “70,000 by the end of the year and perhaps as many as 140,000 in total.” (p.101) The Nagasaki bomb was approximately 20 kilotons.

Please note that more than half of those who died in five years had survived the blast in Hiroshima. In Nagasaki, it was more than two-thirds. No one knows how many cancers and other illnesses resulted.

To repeat: some say the bunker busters now in the US arsenal have a yield of 10 kilotons, but most believe the yield goes up to 340 kilotons, more than 22 times the yield of the bomb that destroyed the city of Hiroshima, and reduced human beings to lumps of charcoal a half mile away. The first atom bomb ever exploded, in a New Mexico test, was about 17 kilotons. It killed every living creature for a mile radius, including insects.

In that summer of 1945, when Norman Cousins read the first detailed reports on the development of the atomic bomb in the same issue of the New York Times that told of that bomb’s first use in destroying Hiroshima, he wrote an essay that would be published within days in the magazine he edited, the Saturday Review of Literature. Though it may sound like a sedate and specialized publication now, it was widely read, with a circulation of over half a million. It became a well-known and much discussed essay, especially when Cousins expanded it into a small book, titled “Modern Man Is Obsolete”.

Cousins advanced several philosophical and political arguments in this essay, but he began with the most vital assertion: the dropping of the Bomb meant that humanity had entered an entirely new era. Total destruction of civilization and possibly of humankind, perhaps of most life on earth, was now possible. This fact had to brought into the consciousness of the species, so humanity could try to take control of its fate. “The power of the atomic bomb “must be dramatized and kept in the forefront of public opinion, ” he wrote. “The full dimension of the peril must be seen and recognized.”

But that task was always going to be difficult, as he learned just a year later. Cousins was one of the reporters who witnessed the first postwar atomic bomb test at Bikini island, in the summer of 1946. The bomb was dropped into the ocean, with numerous naval vessels in the vicinity to test the extent of its destructive power. But the observation ship was far away, and the bomb had missed the target so the devastation it caused was not immediately obvious. The first reports to the world gave the impression, Cousins wrote, “that the bomb had been `oversold’–that it was `merely’ another weapon.”

For at least the next 40 years, there were always people in government and the military who tried to minimize the Bomb, as just another weapon. At first they denied that radioactive fallout existed. Then they said it wasn’t very harmful. And then they said that death by radioactive poisoning was “pleasant.”

Then we were supposed to forget about the effects. Nuclear war was supposed to become normal. Cousins called it “the standardization of castastrophe.”

It soon became apparent, even in 1946, that the Bomb test Cousins witnessed had indeed been enormously destructive, and the second bomb exploded in this series surprised even the bomb-makers with its ferocious power, sending a half-mile wide column of water a mile into the sky in a single second, and spewing quantities of radiation farther than the military anticipated. These were the first tests at Bikini island, a place still too radioactive for human life today.

These first tests were called Operation Crossroads. I was born on the day of the first one. The atomic Bomb was a political and moral crossroads for humanity, because it was so powerful and so different. Today’s conventional bombs are themselves far more destructive than conventional weapons in the past. Depleted uranimum munitions and various chemical agents have long term effects. But even so, the Bomb is a difference in kind. It is the Bomb. We must never forget that. Never. And especially, not now.