SAM COHEN, 89

Search for more humane nuclear weapon led to neutron bomb

Sam Cohen holds a peace medal presented to him by Pope John Paul I in 1978. Mr. Cohen insisted that the neutron bomb was less devastating to civilian populations than other nuclear weapons.
Sam Cohen holds a peace medal presented to him by Pope John Paul I in 1978. Mr. Cohen insisted that the neutron bomb was less devastating to civilian populations than other nuclear weapons. (Michael Dorgan/san Jose Mercury News)

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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Sam Cohen, 89, a nuclear physicist who was credited with developing the concept of the neutron bomb, designed to inflict mass radiation casualties without causing significant damage to buildings and infrastructure, died Nov. 28 at his home in Brentwood, Calif. He had complications from cancer surgery.

Mr. Cohen, a retired nuclear weapons analyst, spent most of his career working for the Rand Corp. think tank and other government contractors.

Often called an enhanced radiation weapon, the neutron bomb was a variant form of the conventional nuclear bomb but channeled more of its energy into lethal rays and particles.

According to Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb," the neutron bomb seemed desirable to Western military planners for placement in Europe during the Cold War as a deterrent to a large-scale land attack by Soviet forces.

It seemed suited, Rhodes said, "to kill more Russians than Europeans" and leave buildings intact.

On the other hand, some strategists feared that the bomb, by causing less collateral damage to cities and civilian populations, might reduce the inhibitions against use of nuclear weapons.

It was perhaps ironic that while the neutron bomb became known for its potential deadliness, Mr. Cohen said he had conceived it as a means of avoiding the human misery he had once witnessed in wartime.

The inventor of the weapon that created debate at the highest levels was a maverick nuclear physicist who never received an advanced degree but was recognized for his creativity - and known for his demanding, insistent nature.

In the late 1950s, he performed all of the calculations for the neutron bomb with pencil, paper and a slide rule his father had given him on his 15th birthday.

As a veteran of World War II's Manhattan Project, Mr. Cohen touted his invention as a humane advance over the weapons produced in that program, and their successors.

Those weapons, he said, were imprecise and caused excessive destruction. The neutron bomb, on the other hand, was a "moral weapon that conformed to the Christian 'just war' principles," he said, "because it can be used to discriminate between enemy miltary personnel and innocent civilians."

Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, on the other hand, once said the neutron bomb was built "to kill a man in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to appropriate the suit."


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