Senate Authorizes Nuclear Weapons Research Initiatives

Share This

Publication date: 
1 July 2004

Few minds have changed in the Senate since last year's decision to support the Bush Administration's request to conduct research on "bunker buster" nuclear weapons and low-yield nuclear weapons. A June 15 attempt to deauthorize funding for both research programs failed by a vote of 42 "yes" to 55 "no," closely resembling the outcome in 2003.

Over portions of two days the Senate considered an amendment offered by Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) to prohibit the use of federal funding "for new nuclear weapons development under stockpile services advanced concepts initiative or for robust nuclear earth penetrator." The informed debate over this amendment was worthy of the Senate's self-characterization as the world's greatest deliberative body.

Kennedy and Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sought through their amendment to the FY 2005 National Defense Authorization Act to strip away the authorization to spend $27.6 million in development funding for the proposed 100-kiloton Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) and $9.0 million for a low-yield nuclear weapon of less than 5 kilotons.

The powerful arguments raised on both sides of the amendment closely tracked those of a year ago (see ) On the first day of debate this year, Kennedy told his colleagues that "There is little doubt that we would be starting a news arms race. Although it is too soon to tell who will follow suit, few developments in the quantity or quality of nuclear weapons have gone unmatched by other powers. To start a costly new arms race for these weapons of little utility is, I believe, a mistake. At the same time, the benefits are not clear. Opponents will just build deeper bunkers, out of the range of new weapons. We will build weapons with deeper range and our enemies will again build deeper bunkers." He later added, "The nuclear weapons the administration is developing go by such terms as ‘mini-nukes' and ‘bunker busters.' They may not posses the yield of the nuclear warheads of the cold war era, but a mushroom cloud is still a mushroom cloud. They can still cause monumental destruction, massive casualties, and long-term environmental damage to entire regions of the world." Kennedy and the supporters of the amendment pointed to a five-year cost projection for RNEP of $484 million as an indication that the Administration plans to carry this weapon through to the 6.3 (advanced technology development) stage, which would require congressional authorization. Kennedy said that under such a plan, RNEP development would occur in 2007 and testing in 2009.

Toward the end of the second day of debate, Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), a proponent of this research funding, addressed his colleagues: "I remain hopeful that we will only use our stockpile as a deterrent to other nuclear states. However, to be an effective deterrent, it must evolve to address the changing threats. We also must maintain a group of experts at our national labs that understand the complex science to support the engineering and physics to ensure our stockpile is a viable deterrent and is safely stored at home. . . . We are using the RNEP study to examine whether or not existing weapons could be adapted to improve our ability to hold at risk deeply buried facilities that our enemies occupy. We are challenging our scientists to think of a wide variety of options and face challenges to ensure that our nuclear deterrent is flexible and responsive to evolving threats. Failure to challenge our physicists and engineers will limit our capabilities in the future. . . . This research is critical to ensuring this country has an effective and safe stockpile that will serve as a credible deterrent to all existing and potential threats."

Domenici's sentiments, while not surprising, are nevertheless significant since they reaffirm his position about the funding of these nuclear weapons initiatives. Domenici is the chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. Funding for the initiatives is in the Department of Energy section of the FY 2005 bill he is writing.

Few senators changed their minds during the last year. Last year, senators voted separately on the RNEP and advanced concepts programs. This year, a single vote was held to terminate funding for both. In 2003, Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) and John Breaux (D-LA) each split their votes on funding for the two programs. This year, they supported the single Kennedy amendment to kill funding for both programs. In contrast, last year Ernest Hollings (D-SC) voted to kill funding for both programs; this year he changed his position to support funding.

Domenici and his Senate appropriators are on a collision course with the House Appropriations Committee that voted not to fund the Administration's nuclear weapons initiatives (see .) House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman David Hobson (R-OH) opposed funding these and other nuclear weapons initiatives this year, as he did last year, and the full House supported his position. Domenici served notice that he will oppose the House's action, saying "I think we're going to have a hell of a fight over it."