Nuclear Bunker Busters Are Dangerous, Ineffective, and Unneeded (10/26/05)On October 26, Pete Domenici, Republican Senator from New Mexico and chairman of the committee that oversees the budget of the Department of Energy, announced that Congress is halting funding on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), or “nuclear bunker buster,” at the request of the Administration. The effort will be transferred from the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapons lab to the Department of Defense, which will seek conventional, non-nuclear solutions for this military mission.
This is a major victory for a saner nuclear policy. There was widespread confusion in the public and press about nuclear bunker busters (confusion that the Administration did little to correct). A remarkable number of reports conflated nuclear bunker busters with so-called “mini-nukes.” Putting aside for the moment that a “mini” nuclear weapon is defined as one with an explosive yield of five thousand tons of TNT, or one third the size of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, the bunker busters were genuinely gigantic bombs. The largest being considered had a yield of 1.2 million tons of TNT. The other misconception was that the bombs would burrow deep inside the Earth before detonating, substantially reducing effects on the surface. In fact, the bombs would penetrate at most only a few meters into rock, causing no reduction in blast, fire, or fallout damage on the surface. The largest RNEP would have blown out a crater almost a thousand feet across and thrown a cloud of radioactive fallout tens of thousands of feet into the air where it would be blown hundreds of miles downwind.
Even with this enormous power, nuclear weapons are not particularly effective at destroying deep underground tunnels. The National Academy of Sciences reported that even megaton bombs could not reliably destroy tunnels more than 300 meters deep. Nations around the world started putting critical facilities underground in the first place in response to precision-guided weapons that made virtually all fixed surface targets vulnerable. The response to a nuclear bunker buster is obvious: just dig deeper. Any nation that can dig under a hundred meters of hard rock can dig under a kilometer of hard rock.
U.S. nuclear weapons simply have no remaining role on the battlefield of the future. Abandoning the RNEP is a big step toward a more rational, safer, nuclear policy.
Nuclear earth-penetrating bunker busters do not penetrate the earth very far and are not even very good at busting bunkers. This video illustrates what really happens and how we have to solve the military problem of buried targets.