Congress Agrees to Administration's Nuclear Weapons Initiatives

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Publication date: 
12 June 2003

When House and Senate conferees sit down in coming weeks to resolve differences in the $400.5 billion National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2004 there will be many points to resolve. Although some provisions of this massive bill will be changed, there is unlikely to be significant alteration to several controversial provisions regarding research on new types of nuclear weapons or in nuclear weapons test site preparations.

Both the House and Senate have approved their versions of the defense authorization bill. There was little disagreement about the overall spending level, which is a bit more than the Bush Administration's request (with actual funding yet to be determined in the appropriations bill.) Controversy this year centered more on policy provisions within the legislation, among them three requests by the Administration relating to nuclear weapons.

The nuclear weapons provisions of the two bills, H.R. 1588 and S. 1050, largely reflect the Administration's recommendations in three areas:

1. Repeal of the prohibition on research on nuclear weapons with yields of less than five kilotons:

The House bill repeals the statutory prohibition on low-yield nuclear weapons development contained in the FY 1994 authorization law. The committee report cited the need for weapons laboratory personnel to actually exercise the design process, the pending retirement of weapons testing personnel, the need for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to "understand 'the art of the possible,'" by potential adversaries, and the committee's contention that "the present Cold War stockpile may not meet future technical requirements for a credible strategic deterrent." It is important to note that the accompanying House report states, "The committee observes that before any advanced concept enters engineering development (phase 3/6.3), and prototype hardware is fabricated, NNSA requires the formal approval of the Nuclear Weapons Council and a budget authorization from Congress." During House floor consideration of this bill Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) offered an amendment to transfer the $21 million authorized for this low-yield weapons research ($6 million) and for an earth penetrating weapon ($15 million) (see below) to conventional weapons research. This amendment was rejected on a largely party line vote of 199-226. The Senate killed an amendment offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to prohibit R&D on low-yield nuclear weapons. After a series of votes, the Senate agreed to an amendment requiring explicit congressional approval for work on the new nuclear low yield weapon to go beyond the research stage into development. The provision agreed to by the Senate states: "The Secretary of Energy may not commence the engineering development phase, or any subsequent phase, of a low- yield nuclear weapon unless specifically authorized by Congress." Testing, acquisition or deployment of a low-yield nuclear weapon is not authorized by the Senate bill. This weapon would have an explosive force of about one-third of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

2. Research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator:

The Administration requested $15 million to modify existing nuclear weapons for deeper penetration into the ground to destroy underground enemy bunkers. The House rejected an amendment to transfer these funds to conventional weapons research under the Tauscher amendment cited above. In the Senate, Byron Dorgan (D-ND) offered an amendment to prohibit the use of funds for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. This amendment was killed by a vote of 56-41. The destructive power of this weapon would be ten times that of the Hiroshima bomb.

3. Nuclear Test Site Readiness:

Both the House and Senate bills require the Secretary of Energy to achieve and maintain a readiness posture of 18 months for the resumption of underground nuclear tests. Current testing readiness is three years. No amendments were offered on the House or Senate floor regarding this provision. The United States has observed a testing moratorium since 1992. In 1999, the Senate rejected a nuclear test ban treaty.