Friday, December 08, 2006

The Nuclear Hand Grenade and Government Waste

In January, the do-nothing Republicans will yield control of the House and Senate to the Democrats. If nothing else, I hope the Democrats and their committees stop some of the unbelievable government waste that Americans pay for. Here's a review by Lawrence M. Krauss in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about the kind of thing that happens too often:
... Sharon Weinberger's Imaginary Weapons is an in-depth exploration of how various U.S. government agencies were convinced, based on a combination of discredited theoretical results and a dubious experiment involving a dental X-ray machine, to spend millions of dollars to support work on this "nuclear hand grenade." Much of the action took place against the backdrop of the Iraq War, which tragically appears to have some common features with the story of hafnium weapons, namely government self-deception and a willingness to believe in nonexistent threats.

Indeed, Weinberger succinctly sums up the purpose of her book in the epilogue: "This book should not be read as a clarion call to rally forces against fringe science, but rather, a warning that without a government willing and able to turn to scientific advisers, there is little chance for sound public policy, particularly in the realms of national security."

Hafnium, as Weinberger recounts, is like a poster child for all that is worrisome about the relationship between fringe science and national defense. ...

Nuclear hand grenades? I understand part of the purpose of some of these wilder projects is to protect us against the possible development of such technology and in any case the plug was eventually pulled on nuclear hand grenade research. But why is it that it's our Pentagon that so often develops these things or throws away millions on them, as in the case of the hafnium bomb, and sometimes billions, as in the case of missile shields that don't work?

And of course which president since Herbert Hoover is notorious for ignoring science to pursue half-baked schemes or pander to the far right? .

Something to keep in mind is that in the 1950s, our government developed such nuclear weapons as nuclear depth charges, nuclear mines and nuclear cannon shells; none of these weapons were practical for conventional warfare and were beside the point in any bigger war. And, in a later era, we shouldn't forget neutron bombs: I'm still not clear whether neutron bombs were ever developed but their purpose was to kill human beings with radiation while preserving buildings. Unless things have changed, all these weapons are no longer part of our nuclear arsenal. Fortunately, what is left is generally under tight control. Sooner or later, when we have politicians who know what they're doing again, we need to return to realistic disarmament negotiations to lower the nuclear threat in the world.

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