Setbacks On Hill For Bunker Buster

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 14, 2005

The Bush administration's program to complete a study of the viability of an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead designed to go after deeply buried targets was set back this week as House and Senate committees marked up the fiscal 2006 defense authorization bill.

Funding was approved for another controversial nuclear weapons program, to research ways to produce what is called the reliable replacement warhead (RRW) for currently stockpiled weapons. But the approval came with limitations to ease fears that any product that emerged would require resumption of nuclear testing.

At the same time, legislators indicated they will continue pushing the Bush administration to come up with a comprehensive nuclear weapons policy for the future, something Congress asked for in legislation passed last year.

The Bush administration has requested $4 million next year to permit the Energy Department to restart the feasibility study of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), which Congress refused to fund last year. On Thursday, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which in the past had supported the RNEP program, refused to approve the money for the Energy Department.

Instead, the panel voted to transfer the $4 million to the Defense Department for the Pentagon to study the potential for a conventional rather than a nuclear bunker buster.

In a compromise to get full committee support, the subcommittee approved $4.5 million requested by the Air Force to develop modifications on the B-2 strategic bomber. Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), a leader in the effort to eliminate the nuclear bunker buster, on Thursday called including those funds "a waste" of taxpayer dollars.

Yesterday, however, the Senate Armed Services Committee complicated the RNEP situation by approving the $4 million for Energy to continue the study but eliminating the $4.5 million for B-2 modifications.

This week, House Armed Services and House Appropriations subcommittees also dealt with Energy's replacement warhead program, which aims to upgrade the aging U.S. stockpile by developing new components.

Last month, Linton Brooks, head of the National Nuclear Security Administration, told a Senate subcommittee that the administration wants to "explore whether there is a better way to sustain existing military capabilities in our stockpile, absent nuclear testing."

The House Armed Services subcommittee was concerned that such a program could lead to building a new warhead, which could in turn require nuclear testing. This week, the panel included legislative language requiring that the warhead program support existing capabilities and focus on parts of the warheads that have been tested and are well understood. The panel also required a follow-up report in a year on the results of the $8.9 million research program.

Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee, said, "This [RRW] program will develop reliable replacement components that are producible and certifiable for the existing nuclear weapons stockpile."

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), a panel member concerned about the program, said yesterday that "the jury is still out" on whether the program can avoid testing. "I remain skeptical, but the parameters established today mark a critical step toward helping us determine if the RRW has value in reducing America's nuclear stockpile," she said.

Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee also authorized the RRW funding and included its own language that would focus the research on current warheads.

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