House and Senate Considering Nuclear Weapons R&D, Testing

Share This

Publication date: 
9 May 2003

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are nearing completion of bills authorizing approximately $380 billion in defense spending for FY 2004. Among the contested provisions of this legislation is language on low-yield nuclear weapons' research and the future testing of nuclear weapons. The American Physical Society, one of the American Institute of Physics' ten Member Societies, recently reaffirmed a Statement on Nuclear Testing warning of "serious negative international consequences" from such testing, finding that it "is not required to retain confidence in the safety and reliability of the remaining nuclear weapons in the United States' stockpile."

Earlier this week, the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces considered draft provisions of H.R. 1588, The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2004. Section 221 of this bill rescinds the prohibition on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons (with yields of five kilotons or less.) During the subcommittee's deliberations, an amendment offered by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) to restrict how the requested $6 million for the "Advanced Concepts Initiative" could be spent failed by a single vote along party lines.

While the House is expected to approve the provision on low-yield nuclear weapons' research as a part of the much larger authorization bill, the Senate floor action scheduled for next month is not as predictable. There has been much discussion about the need for this new type of weapon both on and off the Hill. At an arms control press conference last week, Sidney Drell, Deputy Director Emeritus of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, acknowledged the need to respond to the threats posed by deep bunkers for weapons storage or command and control centers. But he disputed the contention that only nuclear weapons are suitable against such bunkers, calling it a "dangerous thought" that nuclear weapons be contemplated for use for what has been accomplished with conventional weapons. Supporters of research on these weapons contend that radiation would be needed to kill biological agents stored in underground bunkers. At a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Strategic Forces last month, chairman Wayne Allard (R-CO) said "it's time to begin considering how advanced nuclear concepts may contribute to our ability to hold at risk emerging threats." He noted that the authorization would be only for research and not for advanced development or weapons production. Similar contending sentiments were expressed at the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing in March. Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) argued that the proposed research "opens a Pandora's box of strategic considerations." Everet Beckner, Deputy Administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) outlined his support for the research, acknowledging that he was not viewing the political ramifications of the weapons research, but was rather recommending it as an engineer or scientist.

Congress is also considering whether current constraints on underground testing should be changed. The House subcommittee considered this issue during its Wednesday markup. The subcommittee defeated, on a party line vote, an amendment offered by Spratt and Tauscher to make the observed testing moratorium official U.S. policy. The amendment would have required the President to notify Congress at least 18 months before any test and explain why it was necessary. The Administration wants to reduce the time that is necessary to conduct such a test from the current three years to perhaps as little as six months. An NNSA report outlining the factors involved in reducing this time, as well as a recommendation for what time period is appropriate, has been delayed. The report was required by a previous authorization act, and the subcommittee accepted an amendment that constrains the use of funding for enhanced test readiness until the report is received. This amendment was offered by the subcommittee's ranking member, Silvestre Reyes (D-TX). In his remarks, subcommittee chairman Terry Everett (R-AL) called the current three year test preparation requirement "unacceptable." Spratt's opening statement explained that "to the extent we compress the period for test readiness, we may be actually encroaching upon talent needed to have a robust Stockpile Stewardship Program. . . . we need to very carefully weigh that trade off."

Note that in early April, the American Physical Society issued the following statement:

"03.2 Statement on Nuclear Testing (Adopted by Council on April 4, 2003)

"The American Physical Society, reaffirms its April 1997 statement that 'fully informed technical studies have concluded continued testing is not required to retain confidence in the safety and reliability of the remaining nuclear weapons in the United States' stockpile.' Resumption of nuclear testing may have serious negative international consequences, particularly on the nonproliferation regime. In addition the Society strongly urges the Congress and the Administration to provide sufficient notification and justification for any proposed nuclear test to allow adequate time for informed and thorough analysis and public discussion."

The discussions before the two authorization committees serve as a preview of what can be expected when the full House and Senate take up the National Defense Authorization Act in coming weeks. Versions of the bill should be completed before the July 4 recess, with a conference then scheduled to resolved differences in the two bills.

Explore FYI topics: