Debate on new nuclear weapons renewed

Bush administration still hopes to develop lower-yield `bunker buster'

April 10, 2005|By Michael Kilian | Michael Kilian,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is renewing a push to research and develop a new family of lower-yield nuclear weapons, including the controversial "bunker buster," or Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, that could be used against the underground weapons labs and leadership redoubts of the nation's enemies.

Taking a new approach, the administration is insisting that the nation's existing nuclear weapons stockpile has flaws and is ill-suited to meet current and future threats. Officials are seeking to build several prototypes for new nuclear warheads within the next seven to 10 years.

But opponents, including some Republicans, argue that these weapons' smaller radioactive yield would make them more likely to be used and that their very existence could provoke a new nuclear arms race at a time when the United States is trying to curb nuclear proliferation.

Last year, opponents in the House blocked funding for new nuclear weapons research, though the research had been funded in previous sessions.

Trying again with a different set of arguments, the administration is asserting that the U.S. nuclear stockpile is perishable, not appropriate for military needs and difficult to protect against terrorists.

Plans call for spending $22.5 million on developing the bunker buster through the next two fiscal years, as well as spending $97 million on lower-yield warhead replacements over the next five years.

Opponents vow to fight this new initiative, with Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, announcing Friday that he had gathered 88 co-sponsors - including one Republican, Rep. Chris Shays of Connecticut - for a measure to strip bunker buster funding from the administration's budget.

Appearing last week before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Linton Brooks, chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration, said the existing stockpile was designed principally for the Cold War-era of high-yield, multi-warhead missiles and is wrong for current threats.

He told senators that there were a number of compelling reasons for bunker buster research and replacements for the stockpile. "The stockpile we inherited from the Cold War may not be the right stockpile militarily," Brooks said. "We have no capability against hard and deeply buried targets. Our systems are unsuited for some specialized missions."

He asserted that the administration was not pursuing the development of new weapons beyond the bunker buster, but he warned that the nation had to prepare for the nuclear armament needs of the future.

"Other than to request completing this modest research and development effort on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, we aren't investigating any capability changes," Brooks said.

Brooks also warned that the security threats to the nation's nuclear arsenal have changed and that new technologies and safety approaches could make the weapons stockpile more secure, though he gave few details.

During the Cold War, he said, the biggest fear was spies stealing nuclear secrets; now, officials must also worry about a terrorist suicide team infiltrating a site and detonating a nuclear warhead there.

The U.S. stockpile of several thousand warheads was not built to last, he said, and must be annually certified as reliable. The United States ceased underground nuclear testing in 1992, so certification now involves elaborate X-ray examination of warhead structures and nuclear munitions under explosive stress.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a member of the Armed Services Committee, questioned the attempts to play down the new program, saying it was clear the administration is bent on having a nuclear bunker buster weapon, no matter what.

"It would appear that the administration is committed to going forward with this controversial program, not just completing the feasibility study," Nelson said.

"Is [this] an opportunity to have a serious review and discussion of nuclear weapons and nuclear policy? Or is it just an excuse to develop a new nuclear weapon and to return to nuclear weapons testing?"

Markey said, "The development of any new nuclear weapons is a dangerous and wasteful use of taxpayer money.

"The bunker buster should not be funded, because it damages our non-proliferation efforts around the world [and] would, if used, inevitably spread high levels of radiation above ground, potentially resulting in substantial civilian deaths and injuries and property damage."

Peter Stockton, chief investigator for the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight, which has campaigned for improvements in U.S. nuclear weapons security, said he did not understand Brooks' logic in saying that new warheads could be made more secure. He said the danger is not so great with nuclear warheads, which have locking devices that make them extremely difficult to detonate.

"What the terrorists are after is enriched uranium and plutonium," Stockton said.

He said his group has cited concerns over the security at the Y-12 nuclear weapons manufacturing plant near Oak Ridge, Tenn., where substantial quantities of highly enriched uranium are kept.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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