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Senate OKs Study of Nuclear Arms

Congress is poised to overturn a decade-old prohibition on such research. Senators debate whether a new weapons race is next.

September 17, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate on Tuesday approved Bush administration plans to research new battlefield uses for nuclear weapons and improve the nation's capacity to make and test them.

The 53-41 vote to retain funding for the plan, powered by the administration's Republican allies, set up an unusual intraparty fight on Capitol Hill. The GOP-led House had voted overwhelmingly in July for legislation that would strip at least $16 million from Bush's nuclear weapons initiatives.

The Senate debate Tuesday centered on whether the administration would be building nuclear bombs anytime soon. Democrats say things are moving rapidly in that direction; Republicans insist the administration's moves are only prudent planning.

The vote came before lawmakers approved a $27.9-billion bill funding the Energy Department and other government programs in the fiscal year that begins next month.

"There's nothing in this bill that produces a single new nuclear weapon," said Republican Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, whose state is home to critical weapons installations.

But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) insisted otherwise. "This is the beginning," she said. "This money will go to field a new generation of nuclear weapons. We should not do this."

Feinstein had proposed an amendment to remove from the energy bill $15 million for research on earth-penetrating nuclear weapons and $6 million for research on other "advanced concepts," including low-yield bombs.

Federal law for the last decade has prohibited research on such bombs, which carry an explosive force of five kilotons or less. But Congress, at the administration's urging, appears to be on the verge of repealing that prohibition. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945 had an estimated yield of 12.5 kilotons.

Feinstein said the research would open the door to a new arms race among nations that see the United States as a superpower seeking to expand its nuclear capabilities. Domenici derided what he called an effort to "put blinders" on U.S. scientists.

The amendment sponsored by Feinstein and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) also would have blocked administration efforts to reduce the amount of time it would need to resume nuclear testing at an underground site in Nevada. Currently, the site requires up to three years before any test could be conducted. The administration wants to cut that timetable in half, even though officials said there were no plans to end a testing moratorium that has been in place since 1992.

The California Democrat also sought to delay long-range plans for the construction of a facility to produce plutonium "pits" -- trigger-like devices that are a key component in modern thermonuclear bombs. Currently, the United States has a limited capacity for building pits at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. The administration says it merely wants to match the pit-production capacity of the world's other nuclear powers; critics reply that a new facility is not needed unless the nation wants to embark on a new weapons-building program.

Five Democrats joined 48 Republicans in voting to kill Feinstein's amendment. They were Sens. Evan Bayh of Indiana, Zell Miller of Georgia, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida and Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina, whose state is a candidate for the pit-production site.

Backing the amendment were 39 Democrats, Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and independent Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont. All four Senate Democrats who are running for president in 2004 missed the vote: Sens. Bob Graham of Florida, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina. So did Republican Sens. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Peter G. Fitzgerald of Illinois.

In a statement issued before the vote, the White House said its weapons-related initiatives would "help lay the foundation for transforming the nation's Cold War-era nuclear stockpile into a modern deterrent suited for the 21st century."

The administration had strongly criticized the House bill in July, but refrained at the time from issuing a veto threat. A Republican spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee said the nuclear weapons issue is likely to complicate negotiations over a final Energy Department spending bill.

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