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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Congress Authorizes New Weapons Research
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Christine Kucia

Congress has given its stamp of approval to Bush administration proposals calling for expanded research on new and modified nuclear warheads capability. But lawmakers stipulated that weapons designers must obtain prior authorization from Congress before proceeding beyond research to the engineering development phase. They also cut funds in spending bills to put the brakes on some of the administration’s plans—further complicating the picture for future research and development possibilities.

To support the revised nuclear posture first announced by President George W. Bush in January 2002, the administration proposed language in the fiscal year 2004 authorization and appropriations bills that would ramp up U.S. nuclear weapons capabilities. Authorization bills set policy guidelines and spending ceilings while appropriations bills endorse specific spending levels for a given fiscal year. Policy guidelines for the Energy Department’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) are set by the defense authorization bill while spending levels are set by the energy and water appropriations bill.

Earlier this year, the administration requested repealing a provision of the fiscal year 1994 National Defense Authorization Act that bans research on nuclear weapons with a yield of five kilotons or less and asked for funding that could be used to begin exploring new low-yield warhead designs. To enhance test readiness, the administration also proposed shortening the time required to prepare for a nuclear test, proposing to increase funding to $24.9 million for facilities and personnel supporting the Nevada Test Site. In addition, the Energy Department requested $15 million for the second year of a three-year study on developing a more effective nuclear earth-penetrating weapon. (See ACT, March 2003.)

The final version of the fiscal year 2004 National Defense Authorization Act, signed by Bush Nov. 24, authorizes NNSA to spend up to $6.4 billion for overall nuclear weapons activities—an increase of about $533 million from last year. Congress approved the repeal of the decade-long prohibition on research leading to production of low-yield nuclear weapons and authorized up to $6 million for the Advanced Concepts Initiative, which may launch work on such warheads. That resolution followed a months-long debate in which Energy Department officials argued that scientists had been barred from advancing their research by the prohibition while proponents of maintaining the research ban suggested that the Bush administration is seeking to develop “usable” nuclear weapons. (See ACT, June 2003.)

The authorization legislation requires that the Energy Department upgrade the country’s nuclear testing facilities and resources so that the United States may resume underground nuclear testing no later than 18 months after the president’s order is issued. Currently, the United States maintains a test-readiness window of 24-36 months, and the administration has raised questions about the integrity of the nuclear stockpile in the absence of testing. (See ACT, December 2002.)

The bill also authorizes up to $15 million to study possible modifications to existing nuclear weapons in order to create a more effective nuclear earth penetrator designed to root out deeply buried targets. Further, it requires the Defense and Energy Departments to produce a report describing how to integrate research and development and other activities both for conventional and nuclear earth-penetrating weapons. The final bill is expected to be signed by Bush shortly.

Congressional appropriators, however, were not as eager to rubber-stamp the administration’s funding proposals. In approving the fiscal year 2004 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Act Nov.18, Congress slashed in half funding for the earth penetrator program to $7.5 million. The appropriations bill granted the requested $6 million for the Advanced Concept Initiative but fenced off $4 million of the money to research new weapons designs until Congress receives a report on the revised nuclear stockpile plan in light of the reductions in the existing arsenal outlined in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty signed by Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. (See ACT, June 2003.) The committee also stipulated that the $24.9 million for enhanced testing capability should be used to meet the current 24-month readiness requirement before “pursu[ing] a more aggressive goal of an 18-month readiness posture.”

Despite the unexpected cuts and limitations by congressional appropriators, critics denounced the administration’s initiatives. “This funding will allow the administration to begin the research and development of new nuclear weapons—let there be no doubt,” Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said in a Nov. 10 statement. “Clearly, the nuclear door is being reopened.” Representative David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, echoed these concerns. “I don’t like a lot of this stuff,” he told the Los Angeles Times Nov. 6, adding that he is worried “about sending the wrong message to the rest of the world.”


Key Fiscal Year 2004 Nuclear Weapons Program Decisions

Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator
Second year of study on enhancing existing nuclear weapons to penetrate hardened/buried targets
$15 million
$15 million
$7.5 million
Advanced Concepts Initiative
Studies on new nuclear weapons concepts, which may include low-yield warheads
$6 million
$6 million; repealed ban on low-yield nuclear weapon research
$6 million, but $4 million withheld pending stockpile report
Enhanced Test
Preparation of Nevada Test Site for full-scale nuclear weapons tests
$24.9 million
$24.9 million; shortened readiness period to 18 months
$24.9 million
Modern Pit Facility
Design work on facility to manufacture hundreds of warhead cores each year
$22.8 million
$22.8 million
$10.8 million

2004 National Nuclear Security Administration Budget
$6.38 billion
$6.43 billion $6.27 billion