Aug 3, 2007
Two key House lawmakers dismissed as “irresponsible” and “empty rhetoric” a recent warning by the Bush administration that the United States might have to resume underground nuclear weapon tests if Congress fails to approve the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW).
In an Aug. 1 letter, Reps. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and David Hobson, R-Ohio, chided senior administration officials for failing to write a comprehensive nuclear weapon policy or address “higher-level policy concerns” regarding the future of nuclear weapons.
Visclosky and Hobson led a successful effort in the House this spring to cut $89 million that President George W. Bush wanted in the 2008 Energy Department Budget to continue developing the RRW.
In addition to cutting RRW funding, House lawmakers instructed the administration to write a “comprehensive post-Cold War nuclear strategy” that would serve as a guide for future nuclear weapon policy decisions. The strategy was to assess threats and discuss how many nuclear weapons would be needed in the future and how they would used.
On July 24, the secretaries of defense, state and energy delivered a three-page statement that Hobson and Visclosky said was more of a sales pitch for the RRW than a nuclear-weapon strategy.
The statement, “National Security and Nuclear Weapons: Maintaining Deterrence in the 21st Century,” “reads as a description of the status quo,” the two lawmakers said in a letter Aug. 1 to the secretaries who produced the report.
“Instead of a serious attempt to meet the planning requirements for the future nuclear weapons stockpile and nuclear weapons production complex, the document was a reiteration of the administration’s budget justification for the Reliable Replacement Warhead” and planned overhauls of the nuclear weapon production complex, the congressmen wrote.
The three secretaries called the statement a “summary paper,” and said a more detailed report is coming.
In the summary, after listing the RRW’s benefits, they warned that, “Delays on RRW also raise the prospect of having to return to underground nuclear testing to certify existing weapons.”
The United States has signed, but not ratified, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits all nuclear explosions.
Visclosky and Hobson said, “it is irresponsible of the administration” to suggest a resumption of underground nuclear explosions.
Nothing supports the claim that the safety, security or reliability of existing nuclear weapons is so uncertain that underground testing would be warranted, they said. Visclosky is chairman of the House Appropriations energy and water subcommittee. Hobson is the subcommittee’s most senior Republican.
While the House appropriations bill eliminated funding for the RRW in 2008, the Senate’s version of the Energy Department budget cut Bush’s $89 million request to $69 million. The House Armed Services Committee also cut the request to $69 million and the Senate made similar reductions.
In their statement, the three secretaries argued that the RRW “will make U.S. nuclear weapons safer” with “state-of-the-art security features that cannot be retrofitted into older weapons.” The new warhead will have better reliability and performance margins than current warheads, and will be less sensitive to aging.
“Over time, the RRW will enable the United States to transition to a smaller, more responsive nuclear infrastructure,” they said.
Arguments for the RRW were substantially undercut last fall when a government study of nuclear warheads determined that the plutonium pits at the center of nuclear warheads apparently will last twice as long as earlier estimates.
The study by two federal nuclear laboratories concluded that the pits have useful lifetimes of 85 years.
To that, the secretaries respond with a manpower argument: “The skills and technologies needed to refurbish and maintain these older weapon designs are increasingly difficult to sustain or acquire,” they write.
Visclosky and Hobson said they “are disappointed the administration has dismissed the higher-level policy concerns” that Congress has raised about the future of nuclear weapons.
[Read the Aug. 1 letter of Reps. Peter Visclosky, D-Ind., and David Hobson, R-Ohio here.]