Congress dealt a setback to Bush administration nuclear plans in November, cutting funds from an end-of-session bill that would have allowed the Department of Energy to explore new and modified types of nuclear weapons.
The $388 billion omnibus appropriations bill consolidated spending for several federal agencies into one massive spending measure. Lawmakers zeroed out $27 million requested by the White House to research modified nuclear weapons intended to destroy targets buried deeply underground. Congress also reoriented $9 million that the administration had wanted used for studying new warhead designs, such as low-yield warheads with explosive power less than 5 kilotons, or about half the size of the 13-kiloton bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Instead, lawmakers said the funds should be spent on making existing warheads more reliable.
Congress further trimmed two other controversial nuclear weapons requests. It granted only $7 million of nearly $30 million sought by the White House to build a new Modern Pit Facility for producing the cores of nuclear weapons. In addition, legislators scaled back from $30 million to $22.5 million a request for funds to reduce the amount of time needed to prepare for a nuclear test,” according to congressional sources. The administration, which contends it has no plans to break a nuclear testing moratorium extending back to 1992, set its sights on halving the 36-month test preparation period, but technological and financial constraints will likely ensure that 24 months will be the minimum achievable time frame.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then-Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham wrote a Sept. 8 letter expressing their opposition to any congressional tampering with the administration’s nuclear weapons funding requests. They argued that any such actions would negatively affect the U.S. nuclear deterrent and potentially jeopardize long-term U.S. plans to cut its existing nuclear weapons stockpile roughly in half. (See ACT, July/August 2004.)
A senior official with the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is the semi-autonomous Energy Department office responsible for building and maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons, said Nov. 22 that NNSA had yet to assess the congressional moves fully and therefore could not comment on them.
The rebuke of the administration’s nuclear-weapon initiatives was led by a member of the president’s own party: Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee. Hobson, who opposed the same nuclear-weapon activities last year, explained in August. “I don’t believe that pursuing new weapons initiatives contributes anything to our national security in the near future.”
Democrats hailed the funding outcome. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) described the result as a “consequential victory for those of us who believe the United States sends the wrong signal to the rest of the world by reopening the nuclear door and beginning testing and development of a new generation of nuclear weapons.” Another California Democrat, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, stated Nov. 22, “This responsible decision demonstrates the growing bipartisan concern and distrust of the Bush administration’s irresponsible and risky nuclear policy.”
Meanwhile, lawmakers provided $30 million extra to Energy Department programs aimed at retrieving and safeguarding nuclear fuel and materials around the world and added $84 million to the president’s $238 million request to eliminate and secure nuclear materials in Russia. The Republican-controlled Congress also declared it was “disappointed” that the administration has failed to resolve a dispute with Moscow that is holding up a program to get rid of excess Russian plutonium.