The Department of Energy wants to declassify the fact that its proposed new eight-inch and 155-millimeter nuclear artillery shells will be of the neutron or enhanced radiation variety.
"We have argued that since it has been discussed in the press," a DOE official said yesterday, "to say it publicly would not hurt national security."
The Defense Department, however, has had the DOE proposal for over a month and so far has not gone along.
"It's under study," a Defense Department official said yesterday, "and will be decided at a pretty high level."
More than just an interagency debate is involved.
Three weeks ago, Congress received the administration's new arms impact statements on major weapons systems.Because the government still classifies the fact that the new artillery shells are to be neutron, more than 70 percent of the artillery impact statements cannot be made public.
This restriction also applies to statements by members of Congress, and thus would limit debate on whether the neutron weapons should be put into production. President Carter has delayed his decision on production pending public support from NATO allies on whose soil the weapons would be deployed.
Neutron artillery shells would differ from nuclear shells now in Europe in that they would kill primarily through radiation rather than by heat and blast.
It was almost a year ago that the Energy Research and Development Administration, which later became part of the new DOE, unilaterally declassified, for publication in the record of a closed House Appropriations hearing, the fact that it was about to produce the first neutron warheads for the Lance ground-to-ground missile.
In that same hearing, planned production of neutron artillery shells was kept secret and deleted from the published record because ERDA officials then believed it needed "to protect the weapons' design," as one official put it.
Building a neutron for the Lance warhead was not as great a technical feat as producing the miniature neutron version of the eight-inch artillery shell, which would be the world's smallest fusion weapon.
Last year's Lance disclosure, done without the knowledge or agreement of the Defense Department, led to the worldwide public debate over neutron weapons.
In that debate, however, official federal government statements were limited only to the Lance - giving the impression that the 56-mile-range missile would be the only neutron weapon.
In fact, the neutron concept for tactical weapons was adopted primarily for use in artillery shells.
In 1973, Congress had turned down the Army's request for a traditional nuclear artillery round that was safer and had more range than the ones that had been in Europe since the late 1950s.
A year later, Pentagon planners seriously considered adopting the neutron design in an effort to show Congress they had something new in the way of nuclear artillery. Using technology developed in the Antiballistic missile effort, they came up with a miniaturized fusion weapon that would fit into an eight-inch artillery tube.
It was only after work had progressed successfully on the eight-inch, that it was decided to adopt the neutron to the Lance.
Under present production plans, far more neutron artillery shells would be produced than Lance warheads.