Lawmakers Sideline New U.S. Nuclear Warhead

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Congress has yet to complete the raft of bills governing U.S. nuclear funding and policy for the next fiscal year, but the early returns are not promising for the Bush administration's program to develop a new nuclear warhead. Lawmakers say they want long-term nuclear plans before new weapons.

Launched in 2004, the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program aims to produce warheads that will ostensibly be safer, easier to maintain, and more reliable than the estimated 10,000 warheads in the current U.S. stockpile. Existing warheads have been certified annually as safe and reliable, but RRW program advocates say the weapons might degrade over time. They contend the new weapon will be less vulnerable to these risks because of simpler design and more modern and less hazardous components.

Still, legislators this year have capped development of the RRW and cut funding. The most severe action occurred June 20 when the House in its yet-to-be-finalized energy and water appropriations bill zeroed out the nearly $89 million funding request for the initiative from the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). This semi-autonomous Department of Energy entity manages the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

On the Senate side, the panel with initial responsibility for the energy and water appropriations bill June 26 trimmed $22 million from the NNSA request. If the full Senate follows suit then the two chambers will ultimately have to negotiate a final sum, which tends typically to be a compromise between the different amounts.

In addition to the NNSA request, the Bush administration also sought $30 million for the Navy to work on the RRW program. That pot of funding will be dealt with through the defense appropriations bill on which neither the House nor Senate has started work.

The two chambers have made progress on their separate versions of the defense authorization bill. Authorization measures establish legislative guidance for programs, while appropriation bills provide the money. As they currently stand, both the House and Senate authorization bills confine RRW work to design activities and block engineering work.

The first RRW design was selected in March, and program officials are currently refining the design and projecting future costs and schedule. (See ACT, April 2007.)

Lawmakers have raised questions about whether the RRW program will accomplish the administration's proclaimed goals. One stated purpose of the program is to enable the United States to reduce its overall arsenal size. Administration officials argue that the new warheads will be easier to produce, making it unnecessary to maintain as many spares for crises or emergencies.

RRW advocates also contend the program will diminish the probability that the United States will have to return to nuclear testing, which was suspended in 1992. …