US government scientists and Pentagon officials will gather today behind tight security at a Nebraska air force base to discuss the development of a modernised arsenal of small, specialised nuclear weapons which critics believe could mark the dawn of a new era in proliferation.
The Pentagon has not released a list of the 150 people at the secret meeting, but according to leaks, they will include scientists and administrators from the three main nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, Sandia and Livermore, senior officers from the air force and strategic command, weapons contractors and civilian defence officials.
Requests by Congress to send observers were rejected, and an oversight committee which included academic nuclear experts was disbanded only a few weeks earlier.
The purpose of the meeting, at Offutt air force base, only became known after a draft agenda was leaked earlier this year, which included discussions on a new generation of low-yield "mini-nukes", "bunker-buster" bombs for possible use against rogue states or organisations armed with nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.
The session will also debate whether development of the weapons will require the White House to end the US moratorium on nuclear testing declared in 1992.
Major Michael Shavers, a Pentagon spokesman, said: "We need to change our nuclear strategy from the cold war to one that can deal with emerging threats."
He said the administration remained committed to the test moratorium (the US has not ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but has pledged to observe it). But he said: "The meeting will give some thought to how we guarantee the efficacy of the [nuclear] stockpile."
While insisting that it has no plans to resume testing, the administration has asked Congress for funds for a project that would cut down the amount of time it would take for the cold war-era test site in Nevada to start functioning again.
Yesterday, a steady stream of men in summer suits and uniforms arrived at Omaha airport, to be met by welcoming parties of air force officers and taken to the Offutt base, 10 miles to the south in the small town of Bellevue.
The lushly-landscaped base, where the grey shell of a B-52 bomber has been mounted behind a screen of fruit trees, sits atop a labyrinth of high-tech bunkers from where strategic command is poised, 24 hours a day, to fight a nuclear war. It inspired the setting for the 1964 film Dr Strangelove. It is where President George Bush was flown on September 11 2001, when it was thought that the terrorist attacks could be part of a sustained onslaught on the US.
The place and time of the Offutt meeting is infused with apparently unintended historical irony. The visitors arrived on the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing and the last will be leaving on Saturday, the anniversary of the attack on Nagasaki. The B-29 planes which dropped those nuclear bombs, Enola Gay and Bock's Car, were both built at Offutt.
The use of those weapons marked the beginning of the cold war and the first nuclear age. Today's meeting, many observers believe, could mark the start of a second.
"This is a confab of Dr Strangeloves," said Daryl Kimball, head of the Arms Control Association, a national non-partisan membership organisation dedicated to working for arms control.
"The fact that the Pentagon is barring the public and congressional staff from this key meeting on US nuclear weapons policy suggests that the administration seeks to discuss and deliberate on its policies largely in secret."
The uncanny echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not go unnoticed by a handful of Catholic protesters from Iowa who have gathered at Offutt to mark the anniversaries for the past 25 years.
Father Frank Cordaro, the leader of the protest group, said: "This is an American blasphemy to life and to God. They are going to violate another treaty by developing small nuclear weapons. We had made the promise not to do these weapons, but this sole superpower is just ignoring the non-proliferation treaty. That's madness."
Today's meeting traces its origins to a report by the National Institute for Public Policy (NIPP) published in January 2001 as the Bush administration took office. The report argued for a "smaller, more efficient, arsenal" of specialised weapons. Some deeply buried targets, it argued, could only be destroyed by "one or more nuclear weapons". Only by developing these new weapons could the US maintain its deterrent, it said.
Paul Robinson, the head of the Sandia weapons laboratory, who is attending the Offutt meeting, believes that America's new adversaries would be more successfully deterred if the line between conventional and nuclear weapons was blurred.
He argued in a recent commentary in the Albuquerque Tribune that "military strategy is evolving to consider combinations of conventional and/or nuclear attacks for pre-emption or retaliation."
Many of the NIPP report's authors went on to take senior positions in the administration, including Linton Brooks, head of the national nuclear security administration which oversees new weapons projects, Stephen Hadley, the deputy national security adviser, and Stephen Cambone, undersecretary of defence for intelligence.
The report became the basis for the administration's Nuclear Posture Review in late 2001 which contemplated the use of nuclear weapons pre-emptively against rogue states, to destroy stockpiles of nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.
The officials involved in compiling both documents will play a prominent role at Offutt, but scientists and officials with dissenting views have not been invited.
"I was specifically told I couldn't come," a congressional weapons expert said.
Greg Mello, the head of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organisation, said: "There will be tonnes of contractors there from the weapons labs and the weapons plants. Contractors can come, but Congress can't."
The Pentagon insists that today's meeting is technical rather than policy-making, but critics are concerned that it is being used to build up momentum behind the development of the weapons, despite opposition from Congress.
"I'm suspicious that further down the road, they're going to say 'this was decided at Offutt', or 'this comes out of the recommendations at Offutt', a congressional staff member said.www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,1013652,00.htmlE-mail this article