Congress has authorized research into the feasibility and cost of developing a robust nuclear earth penetrator (RNEP), with up to $15 million slated to go to U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories in fiscal year 2003 to work on modifying existing nuclear warheads. Permission was contained in the 2003 Defense Authorization Act, which the House of Representatives passed November 12 and the Senate passed the following day.
The research will examine “what the potential is for the modification of weapons in our system” to strike hardened and deeply buried targets, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. Portions of the 2002 Nuclear Posture Review leaked in March had indicated that the Bush administration wanted an improved ability to strike underground military facilities, including those containing biological or chemical weapons and related equipment, thus spurring the Energy Department to examine options for nuclear “bunker busters,” the informal term used for RNEPs.
Studies into RNEP development, which are expected to last up to three years, will not commence immediately. Congress added a “report and wait” condition to the bill, which requires the secretaries of defense and energy to report on the RNEP’s anticipated use policy, military requirement, and potential targets as well as the ability of conventional weapons to destroy hardened and buried targets. Funds to begin research will be available 30 days after the report is submitted to the congressional armed services committees. As a result of the reporting requirement, research will not start until summer 2003 at the earliest, according to sources familiar with the legislation.
The Defense Authorization Act also calls for the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study assessing the short- and long-term effects on civilian populations of RNEP use versus use of conventional weapons or nuclear weapons that explode above the ground. The study will, among other things, examine whether biological or chemical weapons materials could be released if an RNEP struck a target housing such agents.
Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) noted November 18 that, although the legislation gave a green light to research, the reporting requirement prior to the release of funds “restores Congress’ vital oversight role over what could eventually be the development of a new nuclear weapon.” She indicated that, “since this is only the first funding installment for a three-year study, Congress will have ample opportunity to revisit this issue.”
After the money is released, the nuclear weapons laboratories are expected to study modifications to strengthen the casings on the existing nuclear B-61 and B-83 warheads, according to Energy Department official Everet Beckner, who testified before a Senate committee in March. Beckner noted that both weapons have yields “substantially higher than five kilotons,” so the study will not violate a 1994 U.S. law prohibiting research on “low-yield” nuclear weapons. (See ACT, April 2002.) A version of the B-61, modified to strike hardened and deeply buried targets, was added to the U.S. stockpile without nuclear testing in 1997.
The House-Senate conference committee that finalized the Defense Authorization Act quashed language offered by Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) that would have changed the 1994 law outlawing research on new nuclear warheads with a yield of five kilotons or less.