May 23, 2007
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER
WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers in the House struck a blow Wednesday to the Bush administration's plans to develop a new, sturdier nuclear warhead, rejecting a proposed $89 million for design work the Energy Department wanted for next year.
A House Appropriations subcommittee refused to fund the new warhead project, saying it should not be pursued before development of a comprehensive strategy on future nuclear weapons needs.
The National Nuclear Security Administration in March selected the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California to develop a design and detailed cost estimates for the new warhead, which the administration says is needed to ensure future reliability of the nuclear stockpile without testing. The United States has not conducted an actual nuclear weapons test since 1992 because of nuclear proliferation concerns.
Administration officials argue that the new warhead - and variations to be developed later - will be easier to maintain and will be more secure and more reliable without testing than the warheads they will replace.
Opponents have argued that development of a new warhead sends the wrong signal to the world on nuclear nonproliferation.
An independent scientific panel last month cautioned against proceeding with the new warhead without a clearer outline of future weapons needs, though it acknowledged the new design could be a "prudent hedge" against the uncertainties of an aging stockpile.
The House Appropriations' energy and water subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over nuclear weapons funding, voted by voice to advance for full committee action a broader nuclear weapons and energy funding bill that did not include the $89 million sought by the Energy Department for the warhead program.
"Given the track record of mismanagement at the (nuclear weapons) agency for projects that have a plan, I don't think it is asking too much for a comprehensive nuclear strategy before we build a new nuclear weapon," said Rep. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., the subcommittee chairman.
Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the Energy Department's nuclear weapons programs, said attempts will be made to restore funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
"It's still early in the congressional process," said Wilkes. "We will continue to communicate with various House and Senate committees on RRW, which is an important national security issue."
Work on the new warhead program has been authorized by a House Armed Services subcommittee and the program has the strong support of Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who is the ranking Republican on the Senate appropriations panel that deals with the issue. Domenici recently called on the administration to "take a more active role" to sell the warhead modernization and "answer critics who says the RRW will lead to an arms race."
Nonproliferation advocates hailed the House subcommittee action and viewed it as a body blow to the new warhead program.
John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, praised the subcommittee for "putting a stop to the administration's grandiose plans for developing new hydrogen bombs which are unnecessary and undercut U.S. and international efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons."
Michael McCally, executive director of the Physicians for Social Responsibility, called halting the warhead program "a major victory for the safety and health of Americans as well as for international peace and security."
The Energy Department argues that the new warhead is needed because of concerns about maintenance and future reliability of the existing warheads in an era of no underground nuclear testing. It would be designed to be more robust and more easily maintained and include improved safeguards to prevent potential use by terrorists, its proponents maintain. They also said it may allow future reduction of the number of warheads needed in reserve.