House panel says it won't fund new nuclear weapons
James Sterngold, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007
In a surprising rejection of the Bush administration's nuclear weapons policy, a House appropriations subcommittee said Wednesday that it would refuse to fund a program to manufacture new warheads designed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
The announcement by the subcommittee marks just the first step in a long legislative process that could still keep the new weapons program alive, but it provided a stark indication of deep resistance to the policy in Congress.
"This is a reflection of the concern that many of us have about the posturing of the administration" regarding its nuclear weapons policy, said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek.
Tauscher is chairwoman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, which has supported providing a low level of funding for the new program, but only after the creation of a commission that would examine the country's nuclear weapons needs into the future.
The Livermore weapons lab won the initial competition to design the new warhead earlier this year, and officials had said the lab was preparing to move ahead with more detailed design work. A lab spokesman said Wednesday that Livermore is not giving up hope yet and will work with Congress to obtain the needed funding.
"There will be at least four committees with recommendations on this subject, and we will work with all of them," said lab spokesman David Schwoegler.
For several years, the Bush administration has received a low level of funding to do the initial design work on what is being called the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, or RRW.
The administration has argued that the current weapons stockpile, developed during the Cold War, is aging and should be replaced over time with weapons that are safer and more reliable. Opponents of the program have argued that the current weapons will last for decades, and that the country ought to be slowly reducing the stockpile to fight weapons proliferation.
The administration was seeking a little more than $100 million in funding for the program next year. But the chairman of the House energy and water appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., issued a harsh rebuke, saying he will fight any funding until the administration offers a clear strategy justifying the need for new weapons.
"Until progress is made on this critical issue, there will be no new facilities or a Reliable Replacement Warhead," Visclosky said. "Only when a future nuclear weapons strategy is established can the Department of Energy determine the requirements for the future nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear weapons complex plan."
Experts described the action as a sign that the program is in real trouble.
"This represents the most significant repudiation of the administration's plan," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, which supports reducing the size of the stockpile. "This may mark the beginning of the end of the plan to build a new generation of nuclear weapons."
The plan's supporters made it clear that the battle will now just move to the full House and then the Senate.
"It is still early in the congressional process, and this is just one of several committees we work with," said Bryan Wilkes, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the weapons complex.
Tauscher said the key at this point will be what level of funding the Senate provides, if any, which would then require a compromise with the House.
E-mail James Sterngold at Jsterngold@sfchronicle.com.