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Unease in Congress Over Nuclear Shift

The House voted to deny funding for research on advanced atomic weapons. The Senate is expected to tackle a similar bill today.

September 16, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A quiet Bush administration effort to begin planning for a new generation of nuclear weapons, including some bombs dubbed "bunker-busters," is meeting loud resistance in Congress.

Earlier this year, the Republican-led House unexpectedly voted to deny the administration millions of dollars it had sought to research an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon and other "advanced concepts," including the possible tactical use of atomic bombs on the battlefield.

The Senate is expected to vote today on a similar measure, proposed by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), which would amend a bill that funds the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons programs. Both sides predict that, this time, the administration will prevail.

But the debate underlines congressional unease about one of the most significant shifts in nuclear policy since the Cold War's end, including preparations to accelerate the timetable for possible resumption -- for the first time in more than a decade -- of nuclear weapons tests.

Administration allies said the nation should take a fresh look at how nuclear weapons could maintain deterrence against an array of 21st-century threats, including terrorists, that have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Critics say that the U.S., by ramping up its weapons research at a time when it is warning such states as North Korea and Iran to halt development of an atomic bomb, risks encouraging the spread of nuclear weapons around the globe. While the U.S. and Russia have cut their atomic arsenals in the last few years, administration statements have heightened the profile of U.S. nuclear arms policy.

In a controversial "Nuclear Posture Review" disclosed in 2002, the Pentagon directed war planners to prepare options for the possible use of nuclear weapons against seven potential enemy nations -- including Iran and North Korea, both of which harbor nuclear ambitions. The administration has also suggested that nuclear weapons might be used against foes that hit U.S. troops with chemical or biological weapons, a position that echoes threats from previous administrations.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, officials also have spoken openly of the need to rethink deterrence in an era when nuclear weapons targeting the U.S. are not necessarily located in missile silos watched by spy satellites.

Now comes an administration request for $15 million in the 2004 fiscal year, which begins next month, to research a weapon called a "robust nuclear earth penetrator." Such a bomb, sometimes called a bunker-buster, would be either a new or refitted weapon able to reach a buried target before exploding.

The administration is also seeking $6 million for other advanced concepts, including plans for weapons identified as having five kilotons or less of explosive force. That would be less powerful than the estimated 12.5-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, but would still be able to wreak large-scale devastation.

In July, the House approved a bill that would slash to $5 million the funding for the earth-penetrating bomb and omit the $6 million sought for other advanced concepts. In a report accompanying the bill, Republicans on the House Appropriations panel wrote: "It appears to the committee the Department [of Energy] is proposing to rebuild, restart and redo and otherwise exercise every capability that was used over the past 40 years of the Cold War and at the same time prepare for a future with an expanded mission for nuclear weapons." These lawmakers called the funding requests "premature."

Feinstein echoed that criticism. Her measure would strike from a Senate spending bill all $21 million that the administration requested for advanced weapons research. It would also block administration efforts to cut the amount of time needed to prepare for nuclear testing at an underground facility in Nevada.

Currently, it would take up to three years to resume testing; the administration wants to be able to do so in as few as 18 months, if needed. The United States halted nuclear weapons testing in 1992.

Feinstein accused the administration of risking further global nuclear proliferation. "If we appropriate these dollars," she said, "we can expect that other nations will follow and a new nuclear race will begin, and the chance that one day -- somehow, some way -- they will be used against us will increase."

But the Republican Senate majority seems firmly with the administration. Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), whose state is home to key nuclear weapons research installations, including Los Alamos National Laboratory, said nothing in the bill would authorize the building of a single new weapon.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), another opponent of Feinstein's amendment, said scientists should be allowed to pursue further research: "We are well aware that there are countries in the world that have developed extraordinarily robust underground facilities that we're going to have to take out if we're going to have the ability to win a military conflict with them.... Conventional weaponry won't do it, as precise as it is."

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