Senate Deliberations on Administration's Nuclear Weapons Initiatives

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Publication date: 
25 September 2003

Senate debate on September 16 about the Bush Administration's funding request for research on new types of nuclear weapons, the readiness posture of the Nevada Test Site and a new pit production facility was both thoughtful and impassioned. FYI #121summarizes the Senate's rejection of an amendment offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to block funding for these initiatives. The following are selections for the September 16 debate on this amendment (paragraphs have been combined in the interest of space):

SENATOR PETE DOMENICI (R-NM): The issue before us is a straightforward issue that is trying to be made complex. It is not the issue of building new nuclear weapons. Senator [Saxby] Chambliss [R-GA] and I can start off by saying there is nothing in this bill that permits us to build a single, solitary, new nuclear weapon. That requires an act of Congress that is not before us. Secondly, the Senator knows it provides for the testing ground in Nevada, which we had said since we put it in mothballs, it should be ready for testing at any time. Any time today means 3 years. Under this legislation, at the request of the administration, it will be modernized so it will only take 1 1/2 years to get ready for a test, if a test is necessary. So far, those things I have said, it would seem to me, should pass this Senate 100 to 0. There are two other issues I am sure my friend from Georgia will explain, but none of them do anything to build a new line of nuclear weapons for this great Nation. That is not the issue, and I hope the Senator from Georgia will join me in convincing a few more Senators this is an issue to be defeated. Small funding, big ideas; little, tiny funding with great repercussions if we fail to do what we ought to do."

SENATOR SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R-GA): "The funding for advanced concepts that this [Feinstein] amendment strikes will also prohibit our scientists from exploring and incorporating changes to our existing nuclear-related programs, including upgrades to safety and security measures that make our nuclear arsenal more reliable and safer. Advanced concepts are the 'idea machine' for scientists and engineers at our national laboratories that allow them to take advantage of advancement in technology. Essentially, this amendment would restrict our scientists from doing their job, which is to improve the reliability and sustainability of our programs."

SENATOR JEFF BINGAMAN (D-NM): "the amendment seeks to strike funding for the advanced concepts initiative. The administration claims that such funds are needed to keep our weapons scientists on the cutting edge of warhead design but they have not explained to us what avenues of research they wish to pursue. In my opinion, we barely know enough about modeling how our existing warheads function under the stockpile stewardship program. Our modern strategic warheads, such as the W-76 and W-88, are very complicated; modeling them challenges even the most advanced calculations on our laboratory supercomputers. There is no need at this time to embark on the new avenue of research in the advanced concepts initiative when we don't understand the science underlying the stockpile stewardship of our deployed arsenal. The advanced concepts initiative will be a dangerous distraction from the stockpile stewardship program."

SENATOR FRANK LAUTENBERG (D-NJ): "I must register my shock that the administration has requested this funding, reversing almost 60 years of U.S. nuclear policy. Funding such a request is the first step on a 'slippery slope' that could irreversibly lead us to testing and maybe even deploying these new nuclear weapons. It is imperative that we nip this mischief in the bud by supporting Senator Feinstein's amendment."

SENATOR WAYNE ALLARD (R-CO): "The advanced concepts initiative will support preconceptual and concept definition studies and feasibility and cost studies approved by the Nuclear Weapons Council. With advanced concepts, we are beginning to challenge our scientists, designers, and engineers to consider what is within the art of the possible. They will be challenged to think, discover, create, and innovate. By supporting the administration's request for the advanced concepts initiative, we will ensure there is an active advanced development program to assess the capabilities of our adversaries, conceptualizing innovative methods for countering those threats, developing weapon system requirements in response to our adversaries, and prototyping and evaluating the concepts."

SENATOR JOSEPH BIDEN (D-DE): "Advocates of new nuclear weapons go off the deep end, however, when they suggest that low-yield weapons could ever destroy deeply buried targets, or that a 'bunker-busting' weapons would not cause horrific civilian casualties. The laws of physics dictate that a warhead cannot penetrate more than 50 feet of dry rock before gravitational forces cause the warhead to break up. That means that a nuclear weapon big enough to destroy a deeply buried target - even a target 100 feet below ground - cannot be 'low-yield'. Any low-yield weapon would simply lack the explosive power necessary to destroy a target buried at that depth or lower. So the nuclear weapons designers tell us explicitly: A Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator will never be a low-yield weapon. But what would happen if a low-yield weapon were used against a buried target? According to the physicist Sidney Drell, a one-kiloton nuclear weapon, well below the 5-kiloton threshold below which nuclear weapons are called 'low-yield', detonating at a depth of 40 feet below the surface would still create a crater larger than the entire World Trade Center impact zone and churn up about 1 million cubic feet of radioactive material into the air. This very small one-kiloton nuclear weapon would wreak tremendous damage, contaminating the surrounding area for miles on end with dangerous gamma rays and other radiation. This reality is vastly different from the image of a surgical weapon promoted so often by its advocates."

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): "I admire Senator Feinstein, but I think her amendment would do a great injustice to the future policymakers and the military men and women of the future when it comes to fighting the war on terrorism because this war has just started. It is not anywhere near over. The major players are still alive, but they are trying to get people to follow in their footsteps. So we are going to be in this war for a long time. The question before the Senate and before the country is, If we knew that bin Laden, or someone like him, was in some mountain fortress in Afghanistan or some other country, on the verge, within that fortress, of developing a nuclear, chemical, or biological weapon, what would we do to stop it? I think we should do everything we can to stop it. And the idea of being able to use a redesigned nuclear weapon to keep a terrorist from hitting us with a nuclear weapon is something that we have to come to grips with because it is part of the war on terrorism."

SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D-CA): We are strongly opposed to America beginning a new generation of nuclear weapons. We are opposed to it for two reasons: No. 1, the low-yield nuclear weapon - under 5 kilotons - essentially begins to blur the use between conventional and nuclear weapons, therefore making it easier to use. And, No. 2, because the world will watch this and the world will respond. The way in which they will respond is with a new nuclear arms race. If the United States begins to develop tactical, battlefield nuclear weapons, how long will it take for two indigenous nuclear powers, namely India and Pakistan, arch enemies, to say we should do the same thing. How long will it take for North Korea or Iran or any other nation that so seeks to begin such a similar program? As many internationally have said: America preaches non-proliferation, and then it goes ahead and develops new nuclear weapons. I think that is hypocritical. I do not think this country should be in that position."

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA): "Are we going to reverse the last 40 years? Do we possibly think there will be a safer America if we begin to move back towards the testing and the developing of what they call mini-nukes? I don't believe so, because I believe a nuke is a nuke is a nuke. It is an entirely different weapons system than those in our conventional forces. We understand that. We have to take what the administration has stated: they intend to move ahead in the development of a new nuclear capability. . . . We all know what is at stake. The administration wants us to take the first steps down a new path. But going down that path could easily make nuclear war more likely. Just a little step - they say. But it is still a first step. And a step down that path now could make the next step easier, and the next and the next. It is a path that makes nuclear war more likely, and the time to call a halt is now - before we take the first step."

SENATOR DOMENICI: "We have argued this about as long as we can. I have argued it about as hard as I can. I am getting close to being tired of arguing this, but it is so important we not make a mistake. It would be a tragic mistake to vote for the Feinstein amendment. There is nothing we are doing that the Feinstein amendment should stop. If, in fact, we were going to build nuclear weapons, you ought to be concerned and perhaps vote with her, if she is saying do not do it. But we do not plan to. It is not in here. And she cannot stop it because we are not going to do it. In that regard, the amendment is useless."

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