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Pentagon project death ray bomb { August 14 2003 }

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US military pioneers death ray bomb

Pentagon project brings fear of new arms race

David Adam and Suzanne Goldenberg in Washington
Thursday August 14, 2003
The Guardian

American military scientists are developing a weapon which kills by delivering an enormous burst of high-energy gamma rays, it is claimed today.
The bomb, which produces little fallout, blurs the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons, and experts have already warned it could spark a new arms race. The science behind the gamma ray bomb is still in its infancy, and technical problems mean it could be decades before the devices are developed. But the Pentagon is taking the project seriously.

The plans are getting under way at a time when the Bush administration is seeking ways to expand its arsenal of unconventional weapons, and could well fuel charges that Washington risks triggering a new arms race.

In May, Congress approved further research on a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons: bunker busters, designed to drill into underground shelters, buried beneath hundreds of feet of con crete, and so-called mini-nukes with explosive yields of less than five kilotons.

Critics say such research projects, though tiny by the standards of the Pentagon, risk igniting a new arms race. They also charge the administration with seeking to put in place the conditions to end a ban on nuclear testing.

According to New Scientist magazine, the gamma ray bombs are already included in the US department of defence's militarily critical technologies list - a wish list of possible weapons technology that America considers essential to maintaining its superior firepower.

They would not have the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons, but the energy emitted from a gamma ray bomb would be thousands of times greater than from conventional chemical explosives.

"Such extraordinary energy density has the potential to revolutionise all aspects of warfare," the magazine quotes the defence department list as saying.

The device would not produce energy by triggering a nuclear fission or fusion reaction, like current nuclear weapons. Instead it would rely on the gamma rays produced when the high-energy nuclei of some radioactive elements decay.

Four years ago, scientists at the University of Texas in Dallas showed that it was possible to trigger this effect artificially. The possibility that this decay process, which usually takes place very slowly, could be accelerated and used in a weapon grabbed the attention of the Pentagon. Scientists at the Air Force Research Laboratory in New Mexico are studying whether this can be achieved.

Such weapons would allow military commanders to increase firepower without being forced to push the nuclear button. Experts have warned that if the US scientists succeed in building a gamma ray bomb, it could force other countries to start nuclear programmes, or worse, encourage those who already possess nuclear weapons to use them.

"Many countries which will not have access to these weapons will produce nuclear weapons as a deterrent," Andre Gsponer, director of the Independent Scientific Research Institute in Geneva, told New Scientist. Just one gram of the explosive would store more energy than 50kg of conventional TNT. It would be as expensive as enriched uranium, but less would be needed for a bomb. Unlike uranium, it does not need a critical mass of material to maintain the nuclear reaction.

It would produce little radioactive fallout compared with an atomic explosion, but could cause long-term health problems for anyone breathing the particles in.

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