WASHINGTON -- Some Pentagon planners hope the end of the Cold War will signal the start of a new era -- the age of "mini-nukes," small nuclear weapons that might be used in future Third World conflicts.
Among the gleams in the nuclear planners' eyes is a "micro-nuke" with the explosive power of just 10 tons of TNT, an item that might be suitable for jobs like blasting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of his Baghdad bunker.
A request to fund research into the new generation of small atomic weapons is included in President Clinton's 1994 budget proposal for the Department of Energy.
Not surprisingly, the idea has sparked a blast from nuclear foes.
"Nuclear zealots couldn't care less that the Cold War is over," Bill Arkin, a nuclear researcher with the environmental group Greenpeace, complained yesterday. "What is shocking, though, is that the Clinton administration tolerates, and even supports, these new programs."
Mr. Arkin described the fledgling program in a report in the July-August issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. White House and Pentagon officials acknowledged yesterday that such work is under way, but they would not comment further.
In April, Gen. Lee Butler, commander of the Pentagon's nuclear forces, told Congress that he "is working with selected regional commands to explore the transfer of planning responsibilities for employment of nuclear weapons in theater conflicts."
And two of the nation's pre-eminent nuclear research labs -- the Lawrence Livermore Lab in California and the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico -- want to press ahead with development of what the Clinton budget proposal calls a "precision, low-yield warhead."
The proposed 10-ton "micro-nuke," would pack a punch 10 times the size of the largest non-nuclear bombs dropped by U.S. forces during the Persian Gulf War. It would be 1/500th the size of the B-61, currently the smallest nuclear warhead in the Pentagon inventory.
The labs also are weighing development of a "mini-nuke," with the explosive power of 100 tons of TNT, to destroy nuclear, biological and chemical warheads in flight, according to Los Alamos documents.
A third warhead -- known as the "tiny-nuke" -- would have the power of 1,000 tons of TNT and might be used against enemy ground troops. The Army, which in recent years gave up all of its battlefield nuclear weapons, had nuclear artillery shells about this size.
The Los Alamos documents declare that "any long-term nuclear stockpile should include several hundred low-yield nuclear weapons systems."
Mr. Arkin's report traces the growing support for these weapons among the military, which is a key element in gaining Pentagon support for their production.
The small nukes would "protect U.S. deployed forces" while denying "sanctuary to nuclear-armed leadership" of Third World nations, it said.
The weapons, according to the Los Alomos documents, also would "discourage proliferation" by deterring "future Third World nuclear states."