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27 February 2002

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of the 'Doomsday Clock', the symbol of nuclear danger, from 9 to 7 minutes to midnight, the same setting at which the clock first appeared 55 years ago. Since the end of the Cold War this is the third time the hand has moved forward

As leaked a Pentagon document envisaging the use of nuclear weapons against China, Russia, Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya and Syria appeared in the American press the administration went into overdrive trying to play down the implications of the 'nuclear posture review'.

'What the Pentagon has done with this study is sound, military, conceptual planning, and the president will take that planning and he will give his directions on how to proceed,' said Colin Powell, US secretary of state.

The report forsees the use of nuclear weapons against targets able to withstand attacks by non-nuclear weapons; in retaliation for an attack with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons; or 'in the event of surprising military developments'. It refers to a possible 'Iraqi attack on Israel or its neighbours, or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan'.

Bush's advisors see this as a positive development where the Cold War mutual assured destruction is replaced by the prospect of 'unilateral assured destruction' but the more realist amongst us will view this with deep disquiet.

During the Clinton administration US nuclear scientists developed new types of tactical nuclear bombs. In particular a low-yield bomb designed to penetrate underground bunkers. (This has been deployed in Europe since 1997).

Advocates of the use of such small nuclear weapons claim their environmental impact would be limited, though an attack on Saddam Hussein's presidential bunker in Baghdad with one of these bombs could cause upwards of 20,000 deaths.

Even Nato admits: 'Any nuclear weapons use would be absolutely catastrophic in human and environmental terms... Such human cost would ensure an enormous political cost for any nation that chose to use nuclear weapons, particularly in a first strike.'

'The US is desperately worried about the use of weapons of mass destruction against them,' says Professor Paul Rogers. 'If that ultimately means a pre-emptive strike, then they will do it.' He adds: 'If the US uses even a low-yield nuclear bomb in a crisis, that still breaks the threshold. The genie would be out of the bottle.'

The implications of the Pentagon's review for Britain, in particular for the sub strategic' role - as the government describes it - of its (American) Trident missile system is unclear. 'It is not necessarily a question we would wish to answer,' a British defence official said




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