"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Author, "African Americans Against the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Colonialism, and the Black Freedom Movement
July 1, 2020
Congress Approves Research on New Nuclear Weapons

Christine Kucia

The U.S. House and Senate each voted in late May to allow research on low-yield nuclear warheads and authorized the continuation of an Energy Department program exploring development of a robust nuclear earth penetrator (RNEP) using existing warheads. The programs were contained in the record-setting $400.5 billion fiscal year 2004 defense authorization bill, which the chambers approved separately May 22.

Congress will reconcile the two versions of the authorization bill in conference committee meetings in June. Legislators must harmonize the wording on the low-yield nuclear weapons research provisions, as well as items on nuclear readiness that were changed in the House bill but left untouched from the administration’s request during the Senate’s deliberations.

Creating new or modified nuclear weapons capabilities has been a source of considerable debate. Bush administration officials highlighted in the January 2002 Nuclear Posture Review a need for a nuclear weapon to penetrate hardened, deeply buried targets, such as underground biological- or chemical-weapon facilities, and development of new types of “[nuclear] warheads that reduce collateral damage.” (See ACT, April 2002.) Critics maintain that U.S. credibility in nuclear nonproliferation would be undermined if it researches new nuclear capabilities, which could create a need for resuming explosive nuclear testing.

Administration Wants New Nukes

Congressional action on the nuclear provisions included in the president’s defense authorization request occurred as administration officials offered mixed messages about the ultimate goal of the nuclear-weapon research programs. Department of Defense officials responsible for guiding nuclear policy have declared their strong support for the earth-penetrating and low-yield nuclear weapons research programs. Fred Celec, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear matters, indicated that, if nuclear scientists could design a nuclear earth-penetrating weapon that could penetrate deeply into rock, “[i]t will ultimately get fielded,” the San Jose Mercury News reported April 23. But Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was more cautious in May 20 comments: “It is a study. It is nothing more and nothing less. And it is not pursuing, and it is not developing, it is not building, it is not manufacturing, it is not deploying, and it is not using.”

Linton Brooks, head of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, denied that a military requirement exists for a new nuclear weapon during a Senate hearing April 8 and re-emphasized that repealing the fiscal year 1994 Spratt-Furse law, which prohibits research and development on nuclear warheads with a yield of five kilotons or less, would provide important research opportunities for nuclear weapons scientists. When pressed about what role a low-yield nuclear weapon would play in U.S. security, he stated, “I have a bias in favor of the lowest usable yield because I have a bias in favor of something that is the minimum destruction.…That means I have a bias in favor of things that might be usable. I think that’s just an inherent part of deterrence.”

The Bush administration put an end to the mixed messages in a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) issued to the Senate May 20, at the start of congressional floor deliberations of the defense authorization bill. The policy, which was coordinated among all concerned agencies and approved by the White House, indicates administration approval of Senate action to allow “critical research and development for low-yield nuclear weapons.” The SAP continued, “It is essential to undertake the research needed to evaluate a range of U.S. options that may prove essential in deterring or neutralizing future threats.”

Research Allowed, Work Restricted

Amid the mixed messages from administration officials, a contentious Senate floor debate on authorizing the nuclear weapons provisions began May 20, as Democrats sought to roll back the administration’s initiatives that were endorsed by the Republican-led committees. After the Senate Armed Services Committee approved the administration’s request to repeal the Spratt-Furse law, Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) introduced a floor amendment to maintain the prohibition on low-yield research and development. Both argued that restarting nuclear research would likely lead to renewed development and testing in the United States and possibly in other countries. Feinstein said she finds the administration’s initiative “absolutely chilling and even diabolical, particularly when we preach to other nations” that they should abandon plans to start or improve their own nuclear weapons capabilities. The Feinstein-Kennedy effort failed 51-43.

Taking another tack, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) offered an amendment May 21 to reinstate the Spratt-Furse law with changes to allow research on low-yield nuclear weapons but still to prohibit development engineering. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-VA) countered with an amendment allowing research on low-yield nuclear weapons but stipulating that “the Secretary of Energy may not commence the engineering development phase, or any subsequent phase, of a low-yield nuclear weapon unless specifically authorized by Congress.” The Warner amendment passed on a 59-38 vote. The Senate also approved an analogous provision offered by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) for nuclear earth penetrator capabilities currently being researched, calling for congressional authorization prior to RNEP development work.

Similarly, in House Armed Services Committee deliberations May 14, Representative John Spratt (D-SC) offered an amendment to his original law. The amendment permits research but states that the Energy Department “may not conduct, or provide for the conduct of, develop, produce, or provide for the development or production of, a low-yield nuclear weapon.” It passed the committee on a voice vote, and no further action on low-yield nuclear weapons was taken on the House floor.

House Debates RNEP Research

The House panel also debated the possibility of slashing $21 million requested for fiscal year 2004 Energy Department nuclear weapons research. The funding covers $15 million for RNEP feasibility and cost studies as well as $6 million for Advanced Concepts Initiatives, which would fund nuclear weapons laboratories’ feasibility studies for potential weapons technologies. (See ACT, March 2003.) Representative Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) proposed during committee debate to use the money instead to fund research on the bunker-busting abilities of non-nuclear munitions, but her measure failed in a tight 28-29 vote.

Reintroducing the amendment on the House floor along with co-sponsor Edward Markey (D-MA), Tauscher explained, “Until we have exhausted all conventional means to defeat hardened targets and the military service produces a current requirement for an RNEP, it would be irresponsible for Congress to jump the gun and promote new uses for nuclear weapons.” In reply to Tauscher’s amendment, Representative Heather Wilson (R-NM) emphasized, “We must continue to maintain our weapons of mass destruction program so that we can never be subject to surprise.” The amendment failed on the House floor 226-199.

Missile Defense, Threat Reduction

Congress approved the administration’s full funding request for missile defense and threat reduction activities, but the House and Senate each shifted money to address different priorities within the programs. In a move later endorsed by the full House, the House panel voted to transfer $280 million from long-term missile defense research to bolster theater missile defense work, “reflecting the need to fund more near-term requirements.”

The Senate, however, took steps to make the missile defense program more accountable. The Senate allocated $100 million to conduct an additional intercept test, established performance criteria for each missile defense system segment, required a schedule of operational testing plans, and mandated an annual report from the Pentagon on the program’s progress. The Senate’s action comes amid criticism that the Missile Defense Agency decided to pare down the number of intercept tests and is now planning to deploy ground- and sea-based interceptors prior to operational testing. (See ACT, June 2003.) Feinstein and Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) co-sponsored an amendment, which the Senate adopted, prohibiting work on nuclear-tipped interceptors for missile defense—an idea the Pentagon floated in April 2002. (See ACT, May 2002.)

Both congressional committees fully funded programs providing Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) assistance to help secure and destroy Russia’s weapons of mass destruction. Both the House and Senate approved another one-year waiver of conditions that must be met in order to continue construction of Russia’s Shchuch’ye chemical weapons destruction facility. The waiver allows the president to release funds even if he decides he cannot certify Russia’s compliance with several congressional requirements.

In addition, the House approved an amendment offered by Representative Curt Weldon (R-PA) that would allow the secretary of state to establish an International Nuclear Materials Protection and Cooperation program—to transport fissile materials out of vulnerable facilities or to protect them—for countries outside the former Soviet Union. The Weldon amendment also mandates an annual report on the use of U.S. threat reduction funds and the level of Russian financial contributions to the program, in addition to a detailed plan on securing and destroying Russian biological and chemical weapons and materials. The Senate simply extended authorization for up to $50 million of CTR funds to be used in countries needing assistance outside of the former Soviet Union as the administration had requested.