Congress Approves Research on New Nuclear Weapons

Article excerpt

THE U.S. HOUSE and Senate each voted in late May to allow research on low-yield nuclear warheads and authorized the continuation of an Energy Department program, exploring development of a robust nuclear earth penetrator (RNEP) using existing warheads. The programs were contained in the record-setting $400.5 billion fiscal year 2004 defense authorization bill, which the chambers approved separately May 22.

Congress will reconcile the two versions of the authorization bill in conference committee meetings in June. Legislators must harmonize the wording on the lowyield nuclear weapons research provisions, as well as items on nuclear readiness that were changed in the House bill but left untouched from the administration's request during the Senate's deliberations.

Creating new or modified nuclear weapons capabilities has been a source of considerable debate. Bush administration officials highlighted in the January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review a need for a nuclear weapon to penetrate hardened, deeply buried targets, such as underground biological- or chemical-weapon facilities, and development of new types of "[nuclear] warheads that reduce collateral damage." (See ACT, April 2002.) Critics maintain that U.S. credibility in nuclear nonproliferation would be undermined if it researches new nuclear capabilities, which could create a need for resuming explosive nuclear testing.

Administration Wants New Nukes

Congressional action on the nuclear provisions included in the president's defense authorization request occurred as administration officials offered mixed messages about the ultimate goal of the nuclear-weapon research programs. Department of Defense officials responsible for guiding nuclear policy have declared their strong support for the earth-penetrating and low-yield nuclear weapons research programs. Fred Celec, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear matters, indicated that, if nuclear scientists could design a nuclear earth-penetrating weapon that could penetrate deeply into rock, "[i]t will ultimately get fielded," the San Jose Mercury News reported April 23. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was more cautious in May 20 comments: "It is a study. It is nothing more and nothing less. And it is not pursuing, and it is not developing, it is not building, it is not manufacturing, it is not deploying, and it is not using."

Linton Brooks, head of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration, denied that a military requirement exists for a new nuclear weapon during a Senate hearing April 8 and re-emphasized that repealing the fiscal year 1994 Spratt-Furse law, which prohibits research and development on nuclear warheads with a yield of five kilotons or less, would provide important research opportunities for nuclear weapons scientists. When pressed about what role a low-yield nuclear weapon would play in U.S. Security, he stated, "I have a bias in favor of the lowest usable yield because I have a bias in favor of something that is the minimum destruction....That means I have a bias in favor of things that might be usable. I think that's just an inherent part of deterrence."

The Bush administration, put an end to the mixed messages in a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) issued to the Senate May 20, at the start of congressional floor deliberations of the defense authorization bill. The policy, which was coordinated among all concerned agencies and approved by the White House, indicates administration approval of Senate action, to allow "critical research and development for low-yield nuclear weapons." The SAP continued, "It is essential to undertake the research needed to evaluate a range of U.S. options that may prove essential in deterring or neutralizing future threats."

Research Allowed, Work Restricted

Amid the mixed messages from administration officials, a contentious Senate floor debate on authorizing the nuclear weapons provisions began May 20, as Democrats sought to roll back the administration's initiatives that were endorsed by the Republican-led committees. …