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– Suzanne DiMaggio
Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Congress Cuts Nuclear Bunker Buster Again
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Wade Boese

Congress and the Bush administration differed sharply this year over the future direction of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex.

For the second consecutive year, lawmakers denied the Department of Energy’s request to explore modifying a nuclear warhead to penetrate deeper underground before detonating. They also restricted administration plans to make nuclear warheads more durable, rebuffed an effort to construct a new facility to build plutonium cores for nuclear weapons, denied a request to shorten the time needed to conduct a nuclear weapons test, and pushed for faster warhead dismantlement work.

Led by Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), legislators last year eliminated funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), which is also known as a bunker buster because of its intended mission to destroy targets buried deep underground. The administration sought to revive funding for studying the weapon as part of its fiscal year 2006 budget request, asking for $4 million for the Energy Department and $4.5 million for the Air Force to study the weapon. (See ACT, March 2005.)

Hobson, who chairs the House Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, again spearheaded opposition to the nuclear bunker buster and prevailed. Congress in November passed a $30.5 billion energy and water appropriations bill that contains no Energy Department funding for RNEP as part of the $6.4 billion assigned to nuclear weapons activities. The president signed the bill into law Nov. 19.

Lawmakers have yet to finalize the defense appropriations bill, which includes the Air Force portion of the study, and Hobson is not certain about what the final RNEP outcome will be. “I have to watch in the defense bill to try and make sure they don’t go around me,” Hobson was quoted as saying in The Columbus Dispatch Nov. 13. The Ohio paper further quoted Hobson as declaring, “I don’t think [the Pentagon has] given up,” based on a meeting he had with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

The Senate earlier this year supported funding the Energy Department’s RNEP efforts, setting up a showdown with Hobson and the House, which had allocated nothing for the project. But Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Energy and Water Development Subcommittee, announced Oct. 25 that the funding would be zeroed out because the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) had dropped the request. “The NNSA indicated that this research should evolve around more conventional weapons rather than…nuclear devices,” Domenici stated.

An excerpt of the statement sent to Domenici by the NNSA, which is the Energy Department’s semi-autonomous agency responsible for the nuclear stockpile, differs from the senator’s description of it. The NNSA stated that, as information gleaned from planned RNEP activities would be “valuable in the development of conventional earth penetrators, the [d]epartment supports renaming the program.” Nevertheless, now there is no Energy Department program because of Hobson and Domenici.

Congress also axed the administration’s $7.7 million request to move forward on a Modern Pit Facility to build new plutonium cores for nuclear warheads. The administration contends that, because plutonium degrades over time, the United States needs eventually to resume mass production of these cores to keep warheads in good working order. However, Hobson has questioned the administration’s underlying assumptions about how fast plutonium degrades and how many new warhead cores need to be produced for a shrinking arsenal.

Currently, the United States possesses roughly 10,000 warheads, but the administration announced in June 2004 its intention to cut this stockpile “almost in half.” (See ACT, July/August 2004.) Lawmakers are urging the administration to accelerate this work. They boosted the administration’s request for warhead dismantlement by $25 million up to $60 million and, citing “the importance of an aggressive warhead dismantlement program,” instructed NNSA to provide a report by March 1, 2006, on increasing the U.S. “dismantlement capacity.”

The administration’s program to make warheads easier to maintain and last longer by replacing their parts with new components enjoyed similar support. Indeed, Congress almost tripled the administration’s Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) request of $9 million—the funding level approved last year—to $25 million.

But lawmakers are not granting the program free rein. Concerned that too many changes might result in a radically different warhead that could prompt calls for testing to prove that it would function properly, the Senate and House directed that “any weapon design work done under the RRW program must stay within the military requirements of the existing deployed stockpile and…the design parameters validated by past nuclear tests.” The United States last conducted a nuclear test in 1992.

Despite assurances that it has no plans to conduct a nuclear test, the Bush administration has been seeking to reduce the amount of time needed to resume nuclear testing to 18 months in case a technical problem impairs existing warheads or a new threat emerges. Lawmakers rebuffed this effort, ordering that the current test-readiness posture of 24 months be maintained.

Departing from long-standing U.S. policy, Congress, again spurred by Hobson, approved $50 million to launch a spent nuclear fuel reprocessing initiative with the aim of starting construction on at least one advanced nonmilitary reprocessing facility beginning in fiscal year 2010. This involves separating plutonium and uranium from some other radioactive wastes found in spent reactor fuel so they can be used again as new fuel.

Although France currently reprocesses spent civilian reactor fuel and Japan has an ambitious plan of its own, the United States essentially abandoned commercial reprocessing in the 1970s as too expensive and too dangerous because it produced surplus nuclear bomb-ready material that could fall into the wrong hands. Instead, Washington decided to mothball spent nuclear fuel in huge geological repositories, the first of which is supposed to be at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. However, legal and political battles have forestalled the opening of this repository.