Blowing Up Asteroids: The Latest Excuse to Keep Nuclear Stockpiles?

Douglas Birch, “Blowing Up Asteroids: The Latest Excuse to Keep Nuclear Stockpiles?,” Center for Public Integrity, 16 October 2013

“It was a really bizarre thing to see that these weapons designers were willing to work together—to build the biggest bombs ever,” said Melosh, an expert in space impacts who has an asteroid named after him.

Ever since, he has been pushing back against scientists who still support the nuclear option, arguing that a non-nuclear solution—diverting asteroids by hitting them with battering rams—is both possible and far less dangerous.

But Melosh’s campaign suffered a setback last month when Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz signed an agreement with Russia that could open the door to new collaboration between nuclear weapons scientists in everything from plutonium-fueled reactors to lasers and explosives research. A September 16 DOE announcement cited “defense from asteroids” as one potential area of study.

President Barack Obama has committed the United States to seeking a world without nuclear weapons, but NASA is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to study their use against asteroids and the US nuclear weapons labs appear to be itching to work with their Russian colleagues on the problem.

Weapon makers in the United States and Russia are citing the asteroid threat as a reason to hold onto—or to build—very large yield nuclear explosives.

Moreover, weaponeers in both countries are citing the asteroid threat as a reason to hold onto—or to build—very large yield nuclear explosives, which have declining terrestrial justification.

Depending on the nature of the work, it could run afoul of several international pacts, including the 1967 Outer Space Treaty signed by 129 countries, which prohibits deploying nuclear weapons in space. Some experts worry that radioactive debris from blasting an asteroid could itself wreak havoc on Earth. …

David Wright, co-director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Global Security Program, said he hoped any joint asteroid defense work would not become a “jobs program” for weapons scientists.

“When you’ve got the weapons labs sort of pushing for this in the various countries, it starts to make me feel a little uneasy,” he said. “Which doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate thing to do, but you want to know it’s being done for legitimate reasons.”

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