Senate Debates on Nuclear Bunker Buster 

On 30 June the Senate debated the Energy and Water bill that contains funds for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) or the nuclear “bunker buster.” Transcript.

Senator Feinstein of California offered an amendment to strike the RNEP funding. After floor debate, the amendment failed 43-53. Senator Feinstein presented her arguments in support of the amendment, that is against the bunker buster, with Senators Kennedy and Levin giving additional supporting comments. Several strong arguments against the bunker buster were given: (1) It will not penetrate anywhere near deep enough to contain any of the radiation, thus creating enormous clouds of deadly radiation that could kill hundreds of thousands of people. (2) These are huge bombs, not “small” nuclear weapons; the B-83 is a 1.2 megaton bomb. (3) We will not have good enough information to know where to bomb; even if we know where the entrance to a tunnel is, we do not know where the tunnel goes once in the side of a mountain so we can only attack the entrances and that we can do with conventional weapons. (4) Developing or modifying nuclear weapons or finding new uses for them undermines our international efforts to limit nuclear proliferation.

Those speaking against the amendment, that is, in support of the nuclear bunker buster had one basic argument: That the money is simply for a study, not to develop a weapon. In the words of Senator Warner:

Mr. WARNER. Why not have the study so the Senate and the Congress can all be well informed? And it will either verify or there will be a denial of the assertions made by our three colleagues who are in opposition, and possibly a fourth.

This argument is wholly irrelevant to the funding for the RNEP. The RNEP funding is for a study, but a study to determine whether an existing powerful warhead can be encased in a shell hard enough to allow it to penetrate several yards into rock. That is all that is being studied. The outcome of that study does not affect the objections above.

There is universal agreement that no warhead can penetrate more than several yards into rock. The RNEP research program will not even attempt deeper rock penetration. There is universal agreement that the warhead cannot penetrate deep enough to contain any of the radioactive fallout. In any case, the study is not going to explode a nuclear warhead to measure radiation release. The release of radioactivity is, in fact, already well known from shallowly-buried nuclear detonations conducted during the period of atmospheric testing. The study will not address the effectiveness of the bombs at destroying underground targets, that also would require nuclear testing. Effectiveness estimates are based on data from previous nuclear tests and computer simulation. The study of whether RNEP can penetrate a short distance into rock will not address the problem of finding where tunnels go once they enter the side of a mountain. Clearly, the study will not address the effect on US non-proliferation efforts.

No objection to the RNEP will be answered by the RNEP “study.” The RNEP funding is for a test program to determine whether the bomb can penetrate several yards into hard rock. All of the objections to the RNEP assume that the program will be successful. If the program is successful, the RNEP is still a bad idea because of all the reasons cited above. If the program is unsuccessful, the RNEP is a bad idea that won’t work.

Senator Warner also argued that without a nuclear bunker buster, enemies can have a sanctuary and thus not be deterred from developing nuclear weapons. In the Senator’s words:

Mr. WARNER. Mr. President, I could only say to my distinguished colleague, the Secretary of Defense [sic] Colin Powell, a man who has been held in high esteem by this body, disagrees respectfully with my good colleague from Michigan. But the effect of denying a study on this is simply saying to the world, where there are countries proceeding with nuclear programs, you can go deep. There is no deterrence on the horizon. It is off limits, and you can do as you wish and go deep, and you can then conceal your programs from the eyes of the world and there is no deterrence for them to go deep.

At least the proposed RENP study has some relevance to this argument. But the argument is unsound for three reasons: (1) The North Koreans now are producing plutonium in a reactor that is above ground and vulnerable to attack by conventional weapons. They reprocess the plutonium in an above-ground facility that is vulnerable to attack by conventional weapons. The deterrence argument would have us believe that the North Koreans are not deterred by quite plausible conventional attack (indeed, the United States has seriously considered such attacks) but would be deterred by quite implausible nuclear attacks. (2) In most cases, we are not able to attack critical facilities, such as the North Korean uranium enrichment facility, because we do not know where they are, not because we don’t have the weapons. We simply lack adequate intelligence. Saddam Hussein was difficult to find not because he was deep in a tunnel. He was hiding in a farmhouse, we just didn’t know which farmhouse. (3) If the enemy decides to go deep, even nuclear weapons cannot destroy underground facilities. Even megaton bombs cannot reach down and destroy tunnels under several hundred meters of hard rock. Any nation that can dig under a hundred meters of hard rock can dig under a kilometer of hard rock. The laws of physics, not lack of an earth penetrator, make deep tunnels invulnerable. If we want to attack the tunnels, we have to seal up the entrances and that we can do with conventional weapons.