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On This Day: Jimmy Carter Shelves Plans for Neutron Bomb

Last updated: April 16, 2023

On April 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter delayed the development of the controversial neutron bomb, a powerful nuclear weapon that leaves buildings unharmed.

The Carter Administration Vacillated

In the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, the neutron bomb offered one possible route to global nuclear supremacy.

Such a bomb emits high levels of radioactive neutrons, killing people but leaving buildings intact. “Since most neutron radiation dissipates in seconds, NATO troops could move in quickly to secure the battlefield; the radiation from conventional nuclear weapons would remain hazardous much longer,” described Time in 1978.

In addition, the neutron bomb was considered more “humane” as it would leave few if any survivors within the affected radius. Other nuclear weapons would cause many of these unfortunates to die a slow death from radiation sickness and injury.

President Carter’s decision to temporarily halt the production of the neutron bomb reflected poorly on his administration. It was his apparent indecisiveness, rather than the decision itself, that lost him support.

On Tuesday, April 4, The New York Times’ front page declared that Carter “had decided against producing the controversial neutron bomb.” The news made waves internationally. Opponents to the bomb were relieved, while others were incensed that a weapon that might have given the West an upper hand in the Cold War had been discarded.

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The Carter administration immediately denied the Times’ claims and over the next few days said it had not yet made a decision. On Friday, Carter finally declared that he was delaying judgment on the bomb, meaning it was not going into production.

Ronald Reagan continued neutron bomb production in 1981. However, few warheads were created before arms reductions halted the program in 1993.

Science of the Neutron Bomb

Sources in this Story

  • Radiochemistry Society: Nuclear Age Timeline
  • Nuclear Files: The Neutron Bomb
  • BoingBoing: The Profits of Fear (PDF)
  • Time: The Neutron Bomb Furor
  • The New York Times: Aides report Carter bans neutron bomb
  • Hydrogen Bomb/Fusion Weapons
  • The BBC: Neutron bomb: Why ‘clean’ is deadly

A neutron bomb is a form of hydrogen bomb. Hydrogen bombs use the science of fusion, meaning the protons and neutrons inside an atomic nucleus are combined, releasing kinetic energy.

“This process powers the Sun,” explains Fusion bombs are considered thermonuclear weapons. “The ‘Mike’ test of Operation Ivy, 1 November, 1952, was the first explosion of a true two-stage thermonuclear device.”

According to the BBC, when the technology was being considered in the 1960s and ‘70s, “The blast would be confined to a radius of no more than a couple of hundred metres but a massive wave of radiation would knock out tank crews, infantry and other personnel.”

William Peden of the U.K.-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament said, “The radiation would clear up after a strike and it was regarded as the magic wand of nuclear weapons—you could wave it and all the people would be gone.”

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