US legislators Hesitate on Nuclear Weapons Funding

Tasneem Jamal

Sarah Estabrooks

The Ploughshares Monitor Summer 2003 Volume 24 Issue 2

The leaked 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) outlined several nuclear weapon options that “might provide important advantages for enhancing the nation’s deterrence posture: possible modifications to existing weapons to provide additional yield flexibility in the stockpile; improved earth penetrating weapons (EPWs) to counter the increased use by potential adversaries of hardened and deeply buried facilities; and warheads that reduce collateral damage.” Since the release of the NPR, the US has pushed ahead with its agenda to develop new nuclear weapons, demonstrating its insistence on retaining nuclear weapons, and the right to use them, indefinitely.

Recent legislative actions have removed obstacles for the modification of earth-penetrating nuclear weapons and the development of new low-yield nuclear weapons, while research has been commissioned to examine the requirements for renewing nuclear testing. The NPR was heralded because its approach to strategic doctrine would reduce reliance on nuclear weapons by enhancing conventional capabilities and ballistic missile defences. But developing new useable weapons will only increase the role of nuclear weapons in defence policy, and the likelihood of their use, while also encouraging other states to acquire a nuclear capacity.

The US currently possesses earth-penetrating weapons with a limited capacity to burrow into the ground before detonation. The laser-guided GBU-28 and the GPS-guided GBU-27 are 5,000-pound bombs designed to be dropped from the air and to burrow up to six metres into concrete or 30 metres into earth before exploding. The more advanced BLU-118/B uses a thermobaric explosive to deliver sustained shock waves after penetrating the ground. Still, none of these weapons systems has the burrowing capacity to destroy the deeply buried and hardened strategic underground installations thought to be in use all over the world.

Reacting to the attacks on underground targets in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Pentagon has called for renewed work on a robust nuclear earth penetrator (RNEP) to address this obstacle. The argument is that a nuclear explosion would eliminate any potentially harmful biological and chemical agents stored in such bunkers, and with effective penetrating technology, fallout would be limited. The B61-11, a 1,200-pound gravity bomb with a selectable yield, is being considered for modification as a nuclear earth penetrator with increased weight to enhance its penetrating capacity, and thus its damage to the target.

Opponents argue that such a weapon could not contain the radioactive soil and contamination of the blast. In 1962 the US tested a moderate-sized 104-kiloton nuclear weapon 635 feet underground. Even at that depth, the ‘Sedan’ test projected 12-million tons of radioactive soil and debris into the atmosphere, leaving a crater 1,280 feet wide and 320 feet deep. With the current penetrating technology, weapons can only burrow up to 30 metres in earth, and fallout could not possibly be contained.

An alternative ‘bunker-buster’ concept conceives of a low-yield nuclear weapon, or ‘mini-nuke’, acting as a spear driven into the ground before exploding. Sidney Drell, physicist and government advisor on nuclear issues, has argued that a one-kiloton explosion would not be sufficient to destroy a hardened target buried 200 feet underground, but anything more powerful could not contain the fallout.

Moves to begin research and development on mini-nukes in the early 1990s were squelched with the passage of the Spratt-Furse amendment, adopted with the FY94 Defense Authorization Act. It stated that the US “could not conduct research and development which could lead to the production by the United States of a low-yield nuclear weapon, including a precision low-yield warhead” (Section 3136 of pp. 103-160). Low-yield was designated as less than five kilotons.

The FY2004 Defense Authorization Bill before Congress included a call for repealing the Spratt-Furse ban on low-yield nuclear weapons development. The bill was passed in the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 9, but on May 21 an amendment was added in Senate requiring Congressional approval before development could progress beyond research and development to the engineering phase. A similar bill negotiated in the House Armed Services Committee was amended to limit any work to the research phase.

Also approved in the FY2004 Defense Authorization Bill was $15-million in funding for a feasibility and cost analysis of a robust nuclear earth penetrator. The funding was approved in the Senate with an amendment requiring Congressional authorization of development work. An attempt in the House to shift RNEP funding to non-nuclear penetrating technology failed. An additional $6-million was earmarked for advanced research on nuclear weapons already in the arsenal.

Expressing concern that options to refurbish the nuclear arsenal could be limited by a weakened infrastructure, the NPR called for a revitalized weapons complex, including the capacity to renew testing at short notice and re-start Plutonium pit production. This was reflected in the Defense Authorization Bill in which $25-million was pegged for nuclear infrastructure updates, to shorten the lead-time required to renew testing at the Nevada test site. A commitment has already been made to build a new Modern Pit Facility, and the bill also included funding for a study on the environmental impact of such a project.

In its preliminary stages, nuclear weapons research is funded by the Department of Energy and therefore any new programs require final approval by the Energy and Water Appropriations Committees. In a surprising development on July 11, the Republican-led House Energy and Water Development Appropriations subcommittee objected to the new nuclear weapons proposals in the appropriations bill. The subcommittee approved $27-billion in energy- and water-related funding, but failed to approve some $50-million in requested funding for nuclear programs, cutting funding for bunker busters, new tactical nuclear weapons development, research into renewing testing, and an environmental assessment for Plutonium pit production.

Representative David Hobson (R-OH), Chairman of the subcommittee, is quoted as saying: “Unfortunately, the Department of Energy continues to ask Congress to fund a Cold War nuclear arsenal, and the nuclear weapons complex necessary to maintain that arsenal, even though we no longer face a Cold War adversary.” Whether or not these cuts stand in the final version of the bill, the action certainly demonstrates a degree of disapproval within the Republican Party for new nuclear weapons programs.

Voting on a similar appropriations bill, the Senate subcommittee approved all of the requested funding for the Department of Energy’s nuclear programs, including $15-million for RNEP research, $6-million for research on mini-nukes, $25-million to reduce the time required to renew testing, and $22-million for environmental studies of the proposed Plutonium pit production. The Senate is slated to vote on the appropriations bill in the coming weeks, at which time the move in the House subcommittee will be taken into consideration.

Action to move ahead with the research and development of new nuclear weapons, especially their eventual testing, would have far-reaching political consequences. It would compound the already strong perception that the US has no intention of disarming, only preventing others from attaining the technology it retains. Russia would likely see US theatre nuclear weapons as antagonistic, especially when Russia is being called on to secure and disarm its own tactical nuclear weapons, which are seen as a proliferation threat. And although some argue that more ‘useable’ nuclear weapons would be a stronger deterrent, moves to expand the US nuclear arsenal would further undermine the credibility of its calls on states like North Korea and Iran to forgo nuclear weapons development.

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