A Letter to the US Senate: Keep the Ban on Building Nuclear Weapons

May 20th, 2003 - by admin

by Union of Concerned Scientists –


By Hans Bethe, Sidney D. Drell, Richard L. Garwin, Marvin Goldberger, John P. Holdren, Albert Narath, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky and Bob Peurifoy / Union of Concerned Scientists

(May 19, 2003) — Dear Senator, as scientists and engineers with long experience on nuclear weapons and defense issues, we are writing to urge you to retain the Spratt-Furse law banning development leading to the production of nuclear weapons with yields of less than five kilotons.

There is no need for the United States to develop new low-yield nuclear weapons beyond those it has already developed and tested. Opponents of the law argue that the ban impedes exploration of nuclear weapons concepts for attacking deep underground targets and destroying chemical and biological agents. However, technical analysis shows that low-yield weapons would not be effective for these tasks. Low-yield earth-penetrating weapons cannot burrow deep enough and do not have a large enough yield to destroy deep underground targets; moreover, the explosion would not be contained for even low-yield earth-penetrating weapons, and would necessarily result in large amounts of radioactive fallout. If a nuclear weapon was used to attack chemical or biological agents, it is far more likely that this would result in the dissemination of these agents rather than their destruction.

Moreover, the law does not restrict research and early development of low-yield weapons, and places no restriction at all on work on higher-yield weapons. The law only prohibits later stages of development and engineering that are geared toward production of a low-yield weapon.

Some opponents of the law argue that maintaining expertise at the U.S. weapons labs requires weapons scientists to explore and develop new weapons concepts, and that ambiguities in the Spratt-Furse law have had a “chilling effect” on such efforts. However, last week the House Armed Services Committee adopted an amendment that clarifies the wording of the law. We urge you and your colleagues to support such a clarification in the Senate to make clear that the ban permits research and early stages of development, while prohibiting the engineering and development of new low-yield nuclear weapons for deployment.

Arguments that low-yield weapons serve U.S. interests because they produce less collateral damage and are therefore more usable than high-yield weapons are shortsighted. Any use of nuclear weapons would demolish a firebreak that has held for nearly sixty years and would be a disaster for the world. The United States should be seeking to increase the barriers to using nuclear weapons, not decrease them.

Moreover, it is counter to U.S. interests for the United States to pursue new nuclear weapons at a time when the highest U.S. priority is preventing other countries or groups from obtaining them. The perception that the United States is pursuing these weapons and considering their use would give legitimacy to the development of similar weapons by other countries, and would be an incentive to countries that are concerned they may be a target of such weapons to develop their own nuclear weapons as a deterrent.

The act of repealing this 10-year-old law would send a strong, negative message to the rest of the world about U.S. intentions with respect to maintaining the existing international moratorium on nuclear testing. If the pursuit of new low-yield weapons leads to the resumption of U.S. nuclear testing, this would inevitably lead to testing by other countries—thereby reducing U.S. security and undermining U.S. efforts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.

Given the technical realities and limitations of low-yield nuclear weapons, as well as the likely security costs of developing new low-yield nuclear weapons, we urge you to retain the Spratt-Furse law.


Hans Bethe
Professor Emeritus, Cornell University

Sidney D. Drell
Professor Emeritus, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford University

Richard L. Garwin
Philip D. Reed Senior Fellow and Director, Science and Technology Studies Program, Council on Foreign Relations

Marvin Goldberger
President Emeritus, California Institute of Technology

John P. Holdren
Professor and Director, Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Albert Narath
Former Laboratory Director, Sandia National Laboratories

Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky
Professor Emeritus and Director Emeritus, Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, Stanford University

Bob Peurifoy
Former Vice-President, Sandia National Laboratories

Affiliations provided for purposes of identification only.