WASHINGTON -- President Bush announced yesterday that the United States would no longer produce plutonium or enriched uranium used in nuclear warheads, codifying as policy a suspension that had been in effect for years because of arms cuts and mechanical problems.
Mr. Bush described the move as one of a series of steps intended to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. By renouncing the production of fissionable material, the United States hopes to add weight to its efforts to persuade nations in the Middle East, South Asia, and other potential flash points, to take similar steps, Bush administration officials said.
But the presidential initiative, developed in secret and announced just a few hours before the Democratic National Convention opened, will have no practical effect on the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, and some arms control specialists complained that it did not go far enough.
The production of nuclear weapons material has effectively been halted since 1988 because of mechanical and environmental problems at government reactors and weapons plants. No new warheads are in production.
And with the recent decision to slash strategic arms and withdraw tactical nuclear weapons from the U.S. arsenal, there is an abundance of nuclear material that can be recycled to make new weapons if they are ever needed.
Nothing in the new presidential initiative precludes the United States from recycling the material in old warheads to make new ones, a senior administration official acknowledged yesterday.
In his statement, Mr. Bush said that Washington "is committed to take a leading role in the international effort to thwart the spread of technologies and weapons that cast a cloud over our future."
But Christopher Paine, a specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that the move would be largely discounted because other countries are aware that the U.S. nuclear weapons complex has stopped producing nuclear materials.
Long regarded as a technical, secondary foreign policy concern, the spread of nuclear weapons has become a political issue in this year's election campaign. Democratics have assailed the Bush administration for failing to take tough steps to stop the Iraqi nuclear weapon program before the Persian Gulf war.
After the war, it was learned that the Iraqi nuclear program was far more advanced than U.S. intelligence had suspected.
The Energy Department said the initiative would not halt reprocessing of plutonium for medical, space power and energy research.