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Congress cuts funds for atomic bomb research

Congress has eliminated the financing of research supported by President Bush into a new generation of nuclear weapons, including investigations into low-yield atomic bombs and an earth-penetrating warhead that could destroy weapons bunkers deep underground.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Congress has eliminated the financing of research supported by President Bush into a new generation of nuclear weapons, including investigations into low-yield atomic bombs and an earth-penetrating warhead that could destroy weapons bunkers deep underground.

The Bush administration called in 2002 for exploring new nuclear weapons that could deter a wide range of threats, including possible development of a warhead that could go after hardened, deeply buried targets, or lower-power bombs that could be used to destroy chemical or biological stockpiles without contaminating a wide area.

But research on those programs was dropped from the $388 billion government-wide spending bill adopted Saturday, a rare instance in which the Republican-controlled Congress has gone against the president. The move slowly came to light over the weekend as details of the extensive measure became clear.

Arms-control activists praise decision
Dropping the programs was praised by arms-control advocates and some members of Congress who tried unsuccessfully for several years to kill them. These opponents argued that such research by the United States could trigger a new arms race, and that the existence of lower-yield weapons — sometimes called "mini-nukes" — would ultimately increase the likelihood of war.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) described Saturday's 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."

President Bush's fiscal 2005 budget contained $27 million to continue research on modifying two existing warheads for the earth-penetrator, or "bunker-buster," role, and it projected nearly $500 million over the next five years should a weapon be approved.

While Feinstein and other Democrats had failed earlier this year to bar authorization of the program, it was a Republican, Rep. David L. Hobson of Ohio, who lead the successful effort to keep the programs out of the omnibus appropriations bill adopted Saturday. Hobson, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, oversaw dropping the money from an appropriations bill in June, and House-Senate conferees accepted that action in Saturday's bill.

The Bush administration, Hobson said yesterday, "should read this as a clear signal from Congress" that any attempt to revive the funding in next year's budget "would get the same reaction." He added that he had not heard any threat of a veto and "nobody has come to me and said we can't have this."

Administration caught by surprise
The action caught the administration by surprise. A spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear weapons programs and the national nuclear laboratories, said the matter was under study.

"We are disappointed Congress has not followed the administration's request in several areas, and we will assess what we will do down the road," said Bryan Wilkes, the security agency's spokesman. He added that it was too early to talk about what will be in the fiscal 2006 budget that will go to Congress in January.

Also cut from the nuclear program was $7 million for selecting a site for a $4 billion facility that would build what are called plutonium pits, the nuclear triggers for thermonuclear warheads. Arms-control advocates had opposed the facility, arguing that with a sharp 50 percent reduction in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, a small facility operating now at Los Alamos National Laboratory could produce enough pits for the U.S. arsenal.

Hobson said he decided the research money should be deleted after visits over the past two years with scientists and managers at the nuclear labs and test sites, and after watching steps being taken by the administration to cut the nuclear stockpile and designate "smart" conventional weapons for tasks once assigned to atomic warheads.

He said that the $9 million Bush request to study ideas for new low-yield weapons had been redirected into studies of "current technologies to make existing warheads more robust and easier to maintain without more testing." Hobson added he had been against developing smaller-yield weapons "that someone might use," and instead wants the nuclear labs to employ modern technology to make "more reliable replacements" for the current warheads.

'Growing bipartisan concern'
Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), whose attempt to cut the new nuclear weapons program authorization in past years had failed, described what had occurred as a reversal of "the Bush administration's dangerous disregard for nuclear nonproliferation."

She noted the "growing bipartisan concern and distrust" of the administration's nuclear policies and commended Hobson "for recognizing the need to halt spending for nuclear 'bunker busters' and an arsenal of new nuclear weapons."

Hobson also received praise from Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, who said the Ohio legislator "has shown enormous courage to break ranks with the White House and apply common sense on its excessive and extreme nuclear proposals."

Kimball warned the administration to "carefully consider whether it will try to revive its controversial nuclear weapons research programs."