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Nuclear winter status report.

Nuclear winter status report

It "would be premature at this time" to change Defense Department policies or strategies to account for the possibility that a "nuclear winter" might be initiated by nuclear warfare, according to a March 27 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the congressional watchdog agency. Congress had asked GAO to review scientific research pertaining to nuclear winter -- a controversial theory that suggests large-scale climate changes might be fostered by a strategic nuclear exchange (SN: 11/12/83, p. 314)--and to consider whether these research findings might justify changing defense policy.

Although the 55-page report finds nuclear winter to be "a plausible theory," it also points out that there remain "numerous uncertainties in critical areas" such as war scenarios, fire research and climate modeling. GAO suggests that only some of these uncertainties can be reduced by further research.

In its study, which involved not only a review of published research but also interviews with prominent researchers and policy analysts in the field, GAO identified major differences of opinion over whether the new $5.5 million federal, interagency program for nuclear winter research, begun Oct. 1, is tackling priority problems in the most effective way. For example, at present few funds are earmarked for biological studies of a nuclear winter's possible effects. GAO says some scientists argue that, "given the range of likely consequences in nuclear war," such biological studies should be conducted along with the existing physical and chemical research. However, the study notes, others, including officials in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), "think biological implications have secondary importance."

Analyses of the dynamics of large-scale fires generate similar disagreements. Some of those interviewed for the report suggest that the best use of limited funds is to concentrate now on the study of small-scale in laboratories. Others recommend focusing on controlled forest fires in Canada. STill others say forest fires "would not provide revelant data for modeling city fires and plume dynamics."

Before publishing the report, GAO sent around copies of a draft for comment by U.S. agencies involved in nuclear winter research. One of the primary criticisms it received came from the OSTP. According to GAO, OSTP argued that the report's "discussion of policy issues was giving more validity to the nuclear winter theory than was warranted"; OSTP therefore suggested that the tenor of the report be changed. GAO disagreed and left those discussions in its report.
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Publication:Science News
Date:Apr 19, 1986
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