There's No Such Thing as a Low Yield Nuclear War, graphic by Physicians for Social Responsibility
In Opposition to "Low Yield" Nuclear Weapons
In Opposition to "Low-Yield" Nuclear Weapons

In the centennial year 2000, while the world was getting used to writing or typing the year beginning with  a “2” instead of a “1,” nations were introduced to the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals encouraging the 189 member states to adopt a set of 8 goals for a timeline of 15 years with the hope of significantly reducing poverty globally. And in that same year, Stephen M. Younger, Associate Laboratory Director for Nuclear Weapons at Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote a paper called “Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century.”

Among his proposals was the introduction of a "low-yield" nuclear weapon, in anticipation of a scaling down of the much larger and far more devastating nukes, and because nuclear weapons might eventually be replaced as more powerful conventional weapons are developed. No action was taken at the time, but the current U.S. administration revived the idea in January 2018. In its 2018 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR, a routine Department of Defense document mandated by the legislature setting forth a five- to ten-year plan for the nation’s nuclear arsenal) issued in February 2018, the White House introduced its intention to create a batch of “low-yield” nuclear weapons. 

As the Guardian reported, the NPR argues that “Low-yield weapons ‘help ensure that potential adversaries perceive no possible advantage in limited nuclear escalation, making nuclear employment less likely’...The [Trump] administration argued it needs such a weapon for deterrence purposes, as adversaries might think the United States would never use its current arsenal.”

According to the U.S. Army's reporting: In an effort to modernize the triad system of nuclear weapons on naval submarines, nuclear aircraft, and army land-launched equipment, “The NPR recommends lowering the yield of some existing submarine-launched ballistic missile warheads, and bringing back a nuclear sea-based launched cruise missile.”

A ballistic missile launched from a submarine

"Low yield" nuclear weapons are designed to be launched on ballistic missiles from a submarine.

By contrast, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cites the more recent opinion of Jim Doyle, a retired technical staffer at Los Alamos National Laboratory, that the “low-yield” nukes would “increase the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be used and any use of nuclear weapons could (some experts might likely say inevitably would) lead to general nuclear war and the end of civilization.”

There are plenty of reasons to oppose producing low-yield nukes: They're still extremely costly to produce, they might spark a new nuclear arms race, and they could lead to a greater willingness to use nuclear weapons if officials believe “low-yield” means "less destructive"—which it does not.

Nevertheless, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of 2019 authorized the development of the W76-2 “low-yield” or tactical nuclear weapon (approximately 6.5 kilotons) destined for ballistic submarine Trident missiles at Bangor Naval Base in Washington. The Energy Department spending bill also passed, which allocated $65 million to the project, and the weapons were produced.

The Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility has clarified that one Trident submarine can hold up to 192 hydrogen warheads, each of is at least 7 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb; thus, one sub can carry the destructive force of over 1,300 Hiroshima bombs (the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons). Please see the previous blog post  “I Join with Youth to Appear for Abolition”  written by a Hiroshima victim for a graphic account of the human devastation of a nuclear weapon.

Photo of Hiroshima, Japan after the nuclear bomb was dropped

The ruins of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb blast of August 6, 1945

By September of 2018, the first of the new warheads came off the production line at Pantex Nuclear Plant, a sprawling complex in the Texas Panhandle. Concurrently, the House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D- WA) along with fellow Democrats Earl Blumenauer (OR), John Garamende (CA), and Ted Lieu (CA), introduced a bill to ban this “low yield” nuclear weapon. Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a companion bill in his chamber. According to Congressperson Smith, “We should not fund the President’s request for new low-yield nuclear weapons… His proposal dangerously lowers the threshold to [sic] nuclear use and siphons money away from genuine military readiness needs.”

In a recent congressional discussion of the approximate $10 million transportation authorization of the NDAA, an amendment was added by the House Committee to cut off funds for transporting the finished weapons to the Bangor Base. At the time of this blog, that amendment exists but the current version of the NDAA has not yet been voted on.

We encourage you to write to your legislators and to the Senate/House Committee Chairs about this bill with a sample letter graciously provided by Guy Quinlan, Chair of the Nuclear Disarmament Task Force at All Souls Unitarian, NYC:

STOP THE DEPLOYMENT OF NEW WEAPONS WHICH WOULD INCREASE THE RISK OF NUCLEAR WAR

The Senate-House conference is now working on the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (“NDAA”). A key issue is whether to fund new “low yield” nuclear warheads to give the President more options for their possible use. This would be a tragic mistake:

  • It would lower the threshold at which nuclear weapons might actually be used. The idea that nuclear escalation could be limited or controlled is a dangerous delusion.
  • Putting “low yield” weapons on submarines increases the risk of unintended escalation, because an adversary observing a submarine missile launch would have no way of knowing what type of warhead it has.
  • It would increase the risk of nuclear proliferation, because the new weapons would violate U.S. commitments under the Nonproliferation Treaty, which is already under severe strain.

Contact your members of Congress with the message (preferably personalized in your own words): “Please urge Senator Reed, Rep. Smith, and other conference members to defend the ban on funding new “low yield” warheads. These weapons would increase the risk of nuclear war.”

You can find contact information for your Senators and your Representative at their websites; if you don’t know the names of your Senator or Representative, find them at WhoIsMyRepresentative.com

In 1966, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly adopted a General Resolution on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. That resolution affirmed the need for governments of the U.S. and Canada to take steps to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons, including to “continue efforts to halt and reverse the growth of the nuclear weaponry in all nations.” The resolution also urges Unitarian Universalists to communicate this position to their elected representatives in the national legislature. The UUA was one of many signatories to a 2018 Interfaith Statement of Support for the UN Secretary-General's call to nuclear powers to resume negotiations to reduce nuclear arms. It is clear this action by people of faith continues to be necessary.

We are experiencing a new arms race making the possibility of detonation of a nuclear bomb much more likely—either through a mistake or a deliberate order. These are very serious times and your attention and action are sorely needed to help abolish nuclear weapons.


Additional helpful articles are found at the following:

Thanks to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists for providing this information.

 

About the Author

  • Joanne Dufour is a Volunteer for the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office completing a circle of connection with the office since 1968. She was introduced to it in her second year of teaching back then, maintained connections over the course of her career in education,...

For more information contact international@uua.org.

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