The Bush Administration and the Senate have agreed with the position of Rep. David Hobson (R-OH) and his House colleagues to eliminate research funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) in the FY 2006 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill.
Hobson is the chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The subcommittee's FY 2004 and FY 2005 bills did not provide RNEP (or "Bunker Buster") research funding, a position supported by the full House last year and this year.
The decision reached by House and Senate conferees who are now working to resolve differences in the FY 2006 appropriations bill was announced in a statement issued by the press secretary for Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) last night. Domenici supported RNEP funding and is the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The statement explained that the Administration dropped its $4.0 million request for RNEP research. Domenici stated, "The focus will now be with the Defense Department and its research to earth penetrating technology using conventional weaponry. The NNSA [National Nuclear Security Administration] indicated that this research should evolve around more conventional weapons rather than tactical nuclear devices. With this department change in policy, we have agreed not to provide DOE with funding for RNEP."
Last night's announcement follows several years of controversy about the development of a ground-penetrating nuclear weapon to hold at risk high-value, deeply buried, underground facilities. In 2003, Congress removed the prohibition on R&D for low-yield nuclear weapons in the authorization bill for the Department of Defense (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/061.html, http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/074.html, http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/075.html, and http://www.aip.org/fyi/2003/077.html.) The FY 2004 appropriations bill for the Department of Energy provided $7.5 million for RNEP funding, none of which could be spent for the engineering development phase.
The controversy continued in 2004. The Bush Administration's budget included a five-year RNEP projected cost of $484.7 million. Observers said this indicated an Administration plan to build RNEP. NNSA disagreed, calling the figures "place holders" in a five-year plan (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/050.html.) During consideration of the authorization bill for the Department of Defense, both the House (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/069.html) and then the Senate (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/089.html ) rejected moves to eliminate RNEP funding. Despite these votes on the authorization bills, money talks: the FY 2005 appropriation for the Department of Energy contained no RNEP funding (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2004/154.html.)
This year, the Administration took a different approach in describing its perspective on RNEP. In testimony before a House Armed Services subcommittee in March, NNSA Administrator Linton Brooks carefully described how the Administration's FY 2006 request of $4 million for RNEP was only for a cost and feasibility study. No five year projections were included in the budget request, the Administration seeking to avoid the charge that it had already decided that it would eventually build this new weapon. Ambassador Brooks also sought to put down the charge that the Administration was minimizing the impact of the use of an RNEP weapon, stating, "This is a nuclear weapon that is going to be hugely destructive and destructive over a large area. No sane person would use a weapon like that lightly, and I regret any impression that anybody, including me, has given that would suggest that this is going to be any easier a decision. . . . I do want to make it clear that any thought . . . [that] nuclear weapons . . . aren't really destructive is just nuts" (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/037.html .)
In April of this year, a National Research Council report concluded that there are many hardened targets beyond the reach of current conventional weapons in the U.S. stockpile. It also stated that calculations demonstrated it would be impossible to contain all of the radiation underground from the use of an RNEP, and under some circumstances, there could be a million civilian causalities. However, the number of civilian causalities from the use of an RNEP would be considerably fewer than the use of a surface burst nuclear weapon (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/083.html.)
The new Administration approach did not change the position taken by the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. The report accompanying its version of the FY 2006 funding bill stated: "The [House Appropriations] Committee recommendation provides no funding for RNEP. The Committee continues to oppose the diversion of resources and intellectual capital away from the more serious issues that confront the management of the nation's nuclear deterrent, primarily the transformation of the Cold War nuclear weapons complex and existing stockpile into a sustainable enterprise. The Committee has been disappointed at the bureaucracy's adherence to an initiative that threatens Congressional and public support for sustainable stockpile initiatives that will actually provide long-term security and deterrent value for the Nation. It is the understanding of the Committee that, instead of conducting an RNEP study at a DOE national laboratory, the Department of Defense will conduct a non-nuclear penetrator study at a Department of Defense facility" (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/073.html.) A few days later, the House Armed Services Committee in its FY 2006 authorization bill removed the nuclear component from the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, and shifted the effort from the Department of Energy to the Department of Defense (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/078.html.)
The Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee's version of the FY 2006 funding DOE bill included $4.0 million for Air Force led impact studies on an RNEP type weapon at Sandia National Laboratory. The subcommittee's report had rather extensive language making the case for Sandia testing, stating: "The Committee urges the Department to quickly complete the testing and opposes the Department moving this test to any other facility, as it would be a waste of taxpayer resources. The Committee reminds the administration that none of the funds provided may be used for activities at the engineering development phases, phase 3 or 6.3 or beyond, in support of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/099.html.)
It was against this background of the House's position of "no funding for RNEP" and the Senate's bill providing the requested $4.0 million that House and Senate conferees and staff went behind closed doors to resolve their differences. Last night's press release states: "Domenici indicated that at the request of the NNSA, the Senate has agreed to drop the $4.0 million it provided in its bill for the DOE national laboratories, including Sandia National Laboratories, to continue RNEP research." The release later stated: "Domenici noted that he expects the final Energy and Water Appropriations Bill to continue to include language addressing RNEP and the Defense Department capabilities developed at Sandia National Laboratories." Conferees hope to finish work on the bill by the end of this week.