Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent a memo last month to then-Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham saying next year's budget should include funds to resume study of building an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon designed to destroy hardened underground targets.
An Energy Department official said yesterday that $10.3 million to restart that study is expected to be included in the Bush administration's budget, which is to be released next week.
The study, which had been undertaken at the Los Alamos, Sandia and Livermore national laboratories, was halted late last year after Congress deleted $27.5 million for it from the fiscal 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Bill.
The research project was started in 2002 as a three-year effort to see if an existing nuclear warhead could be fitted with a hardened casing allowing it to dig deep into the earth before exploding. The program has been restricted each year by Senate and House members who have argued that even studying the potential for such a new nuclear weapon undermines Washington's attempts to limit other countries from developing their own nuclear arsenals.
Last year, at the insistence of Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water, Congress cut all money for the program. That came as a reaction to a five-year budget projection by the National Nuclear Security Administration, which runs the nuclear program within the Energy Department, that estimated spending almost $500 million to produce the weapon in the budgets for fiscal 2005 to 2009.
Up to that point, the Bush administration had emphasized that the "bunker buster" program was only a research study, and Congress would have to vote on going ahead with production before that step was to be taken.
Rumsfeld weighed in on the issue in a Jan. 10 memo to Abraham, which was made available to The Washington Post.
"I think we should request funds in FY06 and FY07 to complete the study," Rumsfeld wrote. "Our staffs have spoken about funding the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) study to support its completion by April 2007." He added, "You can count on my support for your efforts to revitalize the nuclear weapons infrastructure and to complete the RNEP study."
A Pentagon spokesman yesterday confirmed the contents of the Rumsfeld memo and said the Defense Department "supports completion of the study."
A spokesman for Hobson said, "Until we see the budget request, it is premature to comment on what might or might not be in it." Hobson is expected to address the subject when he speaks Thursday before the Arms Control Association, which has led the nongovernmental opposition to the RNEP study.
"The administration is missing a key opportunity to make good on the congressional decision last year if it were to renew funding of the study," the association' executive director, Daryl Kimball, said yesterday. "It sends the wrong signal to the international community on the U.S. approach on nonproliferation, and Congress may again reject the request."
The Bush administration's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review found that no weapon in the current stockpile could threaten the growing number of targets being buried in tunnels and beneath mountains.
Congress that year required the nuclear security agency to study whether there was a requirement for such a weapon, and in response the Air Force specified requirements for such a weapon. The Nuclear Weapons Council, made up of representatives of the Defense and Energy departments, then proposed a three-year $45 million feasibility study. Two existing warheads, one used in the B-61 tactical bomb and one used in the B-63 strategic bomb, were to be part of the study, which also was to identify a casing that could burrow deep enough into the ground before exploding.
Opponents of the proposed new weapon have argued that sealing off underground facilities could be done as well with smart, precision-guided conventional weapons, a position supported in 2003 by Adm. James O. Ellis Jr., then head of the U.S. Strategic Command. They also have said that no casing could dig deep enough to prevent the nuclear warhead's explosion from sending tons of radioactive debris into the atmosphere.
At the Jan. 19 confirmation hearing for Samuel W. Bodman, the new energy secretary, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), a leader of the opposition to the study, said, "Dr. Sidney Drell at Stanford University has said there is no casing known to man that can sustain driving a missile a thousand feet underground; therefore, you would have a spewing of radiation."
She asked Bodman if she could discuss the bunker buster privately with him before he signed off on the program because "there are many of us that believe very passionately that we should not, should not, reopen the nuclear door."
At that time Bodman, a former deputy Treasury secretary, said he had not had time to study the issue.