Thinking about the Unthinkable . . . a Couple Meters Underground

Chemical and biological weapons released by the “bunker buster, as seen in our animation.”

Shameless—but timely—piece of self-promotion here.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, where I work, along with Physicians for Social Responsibility, produced an excellent animation on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, also known as the nuclear “bunker buster.”

This is a big bomb, based on the B83, with a yielf of up to 1.2 megatons, or roughly 70 times this size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It is intende to attack underground storage site and command centers.

The Senate is debating an amendment offered by Senator Edward Kennedy to the Defense Authorization bill to remove funding for the new weapon for the next fiscal year. A vote is likely on Tuesday, 26 July 2005, but the outcome it practically assured. Why? Because three weeks ago, in the Energy & Water appropriations bill, Senator Dianne Feinstein offered a similar amendment and it lost 43-53.

However, opponents of the “bunker buster” picked up to votes they had lost before, specifically Senators Collins (R-ME) and Voinovich (R-OH); another vote might gain more ground.

More significantly, last year, Congress eliminated all funds for the program, based on the leadership of Representative David Hobson, chair of the House Energy & Water appropriations subcommittee. Despite Senate support, Hobson’s position won out in the end.

Since last year’s vote, the National Academy of Science’s National Research Council has weighed in on the issue as well, with an authoritative report that confirms what many critics of the weapon have been saying:

Herman Kahn, The Original “Dr. Strangelove”

  1. The explosion cannot possibly be contained underground, and deadly radiation would spread hundreds of miles downwind.
  2. Tens of thousands to a million or more people would likely be killed if this weapon is used.
  3. Despite its enormous yield, it is ineffective against bunkers that are deeper than 300 meters underground, a distance reached easily by current tunnelling technology.
  4. In attacks against underground stocks of chemical or biological weapons, the explosion is more likely to release the deadly agents above ground than it is to destroy them.

These facts are also shown clearly in the animation I mentioned above. Check it out.

Oh, and tell your Senator to support the Kennedy amendment.


  1. J. (History)

    While I am no fan of the RNEP, I have to take issue with the “releasing CB agents” logic. Yeah, if the missile doesn’t hit near or on the target, no sterilization. However, it’s much more probable that the physics of hazard dispersion will allow most, if not all, of the agent to disperse into the atmosphere without causing mass casualties. I realize that all depends on where the target is in relation to the bunker, but seriously – a ground burst throwing up agent is pretty near to useless. Airburst or spraying agents, now that gets some distance on the hazard.

  2. Stephen Young (History)

    The National Academy of Science’s begs to differ:

    In an attack with a nuclear weapon on a chemical weapons facility, civilian deaths from the effects of the nuclear weapon itself are likely to be much greater than civilian deaths from the dispersal of the chemical agents. In contrast, if the target is a biological weapons facility, release of as little as 0.1 kilogram of anthrax spores will result in a calculated number of fatalities that is comparable on average to the number calculated for a 3 kiloton nuclear earth-penetrator weapon.

    So, perhaps I have over-generalized on chemical weapons, for which I apologize, but I stand by the key point: it will release rather than destroy the agents.

  3. J. (History)

    Ahhhh what do those eggheads know? :^) My major gripe with scientists saying things like “100 grams of anthrax equals a 3 kT groundburst in casualties” is that they’re basing it on individual doses rather than from an actual release and fallout. That is to say, 100 grams of anthrax isn’t going to cover a large area at all, and it MIGHT drift enough to kill a few people downwind of the target, if they weren’t killed by the blast first.

    I concur that any off-target attack will release rather than destroy the agents. However, in many cases, these sites are a good distance from populated areas (at least Iraq’s were, not sure about China, Iran, or N. Korea). We certainly have the software packages to model the hazard dispersion, and can evaluate if enough agent would be released to affect nearby major population centers. All I’m saying is, the release ain’t likely to kill people.