Senators Debate Low-Yield Nuclear Weapons Initiative

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Publication date: 
19 June 2003

The debate on the Senate floor was more temperate than the House debate, but the opinions as strong when senators considered the merits of maintaining current restrictions on research and development of new low yield nuclear weapons. Senate debate on an amendment offered by Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) ran over 45,000 words. The Senate rejected their amendment to retain the restrictions by a vote of 51-43.

Selections from the remarks of Senator Feinstein and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA) follow:


"President Bush is right when he says the greatest threat facing the United States lies in the global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist access to these weapons. But by adopting a new approach to national security in the wake of 9/11 that stresses unilateralism and preemption and increases U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, I am deeply concerned that this administration may actually be encouraging the very proliferation we seek to prevent. This bill, left intact, clearly opens the door to the development of new nuclear weapons and will, if left as is, begin a new era of nuclear proliferation, as sure as I am standing here.

"A couple of weeks ago, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talked with the Democratic Senate Caucus and she said something interesting. She said, in all of American history, there never has been a greater change in foreign policy and national security than between this administration and the last one. Indeed, I deeply believe this bill places America at a crossroad in the conduct of foreign policy, and how we determine nuclear weapons policy will go a long way to determining whether we control nuclear proliferation or expand it. This bill will expand it. Let there be no doubt.

"To my mind, even considering the use of these weapons threatens to undermine our efforts to stop proliferation. In fact, it actually encourages other nations to pursue nuclear weapons by emphasizing their importance. For decades the United States relied on its nuclear arsenal for deterrence only. In the symmetric world of the Cold War, we faced the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons and a conventional military that was stronger than ours. Nuclear weapons were used to deter not only a nuclear attack on our homeland but also a conventional attack against our allies in western Europe and Asia.

"Today the Soviet Union is gone, but the world is not a safer place. Rather, we have seen new nuclear states emerge--India, Pakistan, and lately North Korea. As we continue to prosecute the war on terror, it should be a central tenet of U.S. policy to do everything at our disposal to make nuclear weapons less desirable, less available, and less likely to be used.

"This bill will do exactly the opposite. Instead of ratcheting back our reliance on nuclear weapons, this administration is looking for new ways to use nuclear weapons and to make them more usable. Does anyone in this Chamber doubt that others will follow? I do not. The administration's Nuclear Posture Review, released in January of 2002, did not focus solely on the role of nuclear weapons for deterrence. It stressed the importance of being prepared to use nuclear weapons in the future. In fact, the review noted that we must now plan to possibly use them against a wider range of countries.

"The Nuclear Posture Review said that we need to develop new types of nuclear weapons so we can use them in a wider variety of circumstances and against a wider range of targets such as hard and deeply buried targets or to defeat chemical or biological agents.

"And indeed, a few months after issuing the Nuclear Posture Review, President Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 17, saying the United States might use nuclear weapons to respond to a chemical or biological attack.

"In the past, U.S. officials have only hinted at that possibility. But this administration has made it formal policy. In doing so, it has telegraphed the importance of nuclear weapons and the administration's apparent willingness to use them.

"In the legislation before us today, there is language requested by the administration asking Congress to repeal the Spratt-Furse provision--a decade old law that bans research on weapons with yields of 5 kilotons. Now, that is a third the size of the bomb used at Hiroshima.

"I believe Spratt-Furse is an important prohibition with positive security equities for the United States. Since it has been in effect, no nation has developed lower yield nuclear weapons. This administration wants to repeal Spratt-Furse for one reason, and one reason only: to build new nuclear weapons, particularly for missions against the hardened bunkers that rogue states may be using to store chemical and biological weapons.

"By seeking to build nuclear weapons that produce smaller explosions and develop weapons which dig deeper, the administration is suggesting we can make nuclear weapons less deadly. It is suggesting we can make them more acceptable to use. But there is no such thing as a clean nuclear weapon that minimizes collateral damage.

"Consider the following facts: According to a Stanford physicist, Sidney Drell, destroying a target buried 1,000 feet into rock would require a nuclear weapon with the yield of 100 kilotons. That is 10 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

"According to Dr. Drell, even the effects of a small bomb would be dramatic. A 1-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated 20 to 50 feet underground would dig a crater the size of Ground Zero in New York and eject 1 million cubic feet of radioactive debris into the air. According to models done by the Natural Resources Defense Council, detonating a similar weapon on the surface of a city would kill a quarter of a million people and injure hundreds of thousands more.

"So there really is no such thing as a 'usable nuclear weapon.'"

"This is a big vote. This is a vote that opens the door. How we can repeal language that says to all the world the United States is not in the nuclear development business, I do not know, but I find it absolutely chilling and even diabolical, particularly when we preach to other nations.

"At a time when we brand as evil certain countries based in part on their pursuit of nuclear arms and weapons of mass destruction, we must be careful how we consider our own options and our own contingencies regarding nuclear weapons. So I urge my colleagues to think very carefully about the implications this defense bill is going to carry throughout the world.

"The 10-year old prohibition on study, on testing, and on developing nuclear weapons is going to be thrown out the window, and it is a major signal that the United States is going to get back into the nuclear arms business."


"Mr. President, I oppose the amendment.

"Research on precision low-yield nuclear weapon design is prudent in today's national security environment. Why would we want to prevent any type of research on weapons that might contribute to improving our national security? Authorizing the research does not authorize the production, testing, or deployment of a low-yield nuclear weapon. Congress reserves the right to decide that as a separate matter, should such a step be requested by this or any future Administration.

"I have received three letters on this matter: two from top military leaders, Admiral James Ellis, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command and General John Jumper, Chief of Staff to the U.S. Air Force, and one from Secretary of State Colin Powell. All three of these distinguished leaders urged support for repealing the ban on low-yield nuclear weapons research.

"In the current international environment, with many new unexpected threats, it is prudent to allow research on low-yield nuclear weapons to learn whether such weapons could add to the deterrent value of our nuclear force. A repeal of the ban on low-yield nuclear weapons research and development would permit the scientists and engineers at our national laboratories to consider whether these types of weapons are feasible and for what purpose. For instance, could such a weapon destroy a laboratory with biological and chemical agents without disbursing them as a conventional weapon would do? What would be the collateral effect?

"I do not agree with those who assert that even allowing this research to go forward would undermine our nuclear non-proliferation efforts. The United States is steadfast in its determination to prevent nuclear proliferation through many means including diplomacy, multilateral regimes to control the export of sensitive technologies, and interdiction of illegal exports. The U.S. also has a proven record of nuclear reductions.

"Secretary Colin Powell confirmed this view in his letter sent to me on May 5th, 2003. In that letter, Secretary Powell stated: 'I do not believe [repealing the ban on low-yield nuclear weapons research and development] will complicate our ongoing efforts with North Korea.'

"Over the past decade--while the current prohibition on this type of research has been in place--the United States has taken thousands of nuclear weapons out of the active stockpile, abided by a moratorium on underground nuclear tests, designed no new nuclear weapons, and refrained from research on low-yield nuclear weapons.

"Some might argue that these activities served the purpose of encouraging other countries not to develop or proliferate nuclear weapons. But let's examine the record.

"Over the past decade, India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons for the first time. Other nations have continued to seek nuclear weapons capabilities, including Iraq, Iran and North Korea. And many nation are pursing chemical and biological weapons capabilities. I believe this shows that other nations make decisions about whether or not to acquire nuclear and other WMD capabilities based on their assessment of their own national security need--not based on U.S. action in this area. The argument that some make that if U.S. refrains from certain types of activities, others will follow, just does not stand the test of time.

"Some would also argue the authorizing of this research would lower the nuclear threshold. I disagree. As Ambassador Linton Brooks, Administrator of the Nuclear Security Administration, testified before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, on April 8, 2003, the '[n]uclear threshold is awesomely high.' If wars of the future are about winning hearts and minds, about liberating rather than conquering, then the threshold for using nuclear weapons remains very high indeed. But as long as we maintain a nuclear deterrence force, we would be remiss if we did not keep it safe, secure and reliable, and if we did not maintain our research capabilities both for ourselves and to understand what other countries might be exploring.

"It is worth noting that the United States had a large number of low-yield nuclear weapons in our inventory during the '50s, '60s, and '70s which have now been removed from the inventory. During each of these decades there were significant national security challenges to the United States. None of those challenges came close to reaching the nuclear threshold, notwithstanding the availability of low-yield nuclear weapons.

"We have a responsibility to ensure the safety and security of all Americans. We should not place artificial limits on the intellectual work of our gifted scientists to explore new technologies, to understand what is possible as well as what potential adversaries could be exploring. Should threats emerge which cannot be deterred or destroyed with conventional weapons, our President must have other options available to protect the citizens of the United States, our interests and our allies. This has been the policy of the United States for almost sixty years.

"The provision in the Senate bill merely permits the research that will inform future decisions as to whether such weapons would enhance the national security of our country overall. It does not prejudice how Congress would decide that question in the future. Let us not fear greater knowledge to inform our future decisions."

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