The first test of congressional support for a stepped-up nuclear weapons program, above that proposed by the Carter administration, is scheduled for this week, when the House takes up the Department of Energy's fiscal 1981 national security program authorization bill.
By tradition, the civilian-run Energy Department, as heir to the old Atomic Energy Commission, develops and builds the nuclear portion of weapons while the Defense Department orders and takes possession of them when completed.
For the past year, there has been a growing debate within the Defense and Energy departments over whether the White House has in fact requested enough money for the nuclear weapons Carter has said he wants.
The House Armed Services Committee has now sided with those who want more money. It has added, in the bill coming to the House floor, $45 million to the administration's request for weapons testing and another $15 million as a first step toward expanding production of plutonium, a key material in weapons building.
In its report on the bill, the committee criticized "the growing malaise within the nuclear weapons complex," which it said "is rooted in the real or perceived lack of commitment to a nuclear weapons program."
Privately, one committee source said yesterday, the members believe that President Carter has "an aversion" to nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons testing, the committee said in its report, "has been underfunded . . . for the past several years." It added, "Nothing has contributed more to the general malaise within the national weapons program."
The Soviets, the committee said, conducted 28 underground nuclear tests in 1979, while the United States held 15. U.S. tests, the committee added, have been reduced every year since 1972, and are at a level that is "reaching crisis proportions."
The nation's two nuclear weapons laboratories, according to scientists working there, have been required to use all their underground tests over the past several years for proving designs for new warheads and bombs that are now going into production.
They have not been able, they say, to try out new concepts for weapons nor conduct tests of older warheads to see if they remain reliable.
White House officials have argued in response that testing is adequate to meet current needs, and point out that the United States is beginning the largest nuclear-weapons-building program in 20 years.
The House committee, on the other hand, reported that it was "concerned about the failure" of the White House to give the Energy Department enough money "to meet future requirements" of this building program. It added, "There will be a shortfall in defense nuclear materials" unless Congress approves the $15 million it has added to the bill.
These funds would pay for converting one nuclear production reactor in Richland, Wash., to plutonium for use in weapons. The Carter administration, on the other hand, wanted funds to store the lower grade plutonium now produced by that reactor -- money the committee took out of the bill.
In another move bound to irritate the White House, the committee funded reopening of an older extraction plant that would be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium from nuclear materials now in storage.
Finally, the committee approved $4.2 million to begin design of a new production reactor to supply nuclear materials for weapons building during the next century.
One other committee action is worth noting for its implications in future weapons building. It questioned whether "transuranic wastes" are really wastes that should be disposed of. These byproducts of nuclear fission can, in the minds of some nuclear weapons scientists, he used to create an entire new family of atomic weapons.
A transuranic critical mass, the size of a golf ball, according to Dr. Edward Teller, could replace a much larger hydrogen or atomic bomb of today's design.
The problem with transuranics, as the committee noted, is the difficulty of separating them economically from other byproducts.
In another controversial action, the committee cut $36.5 million the administration requested for long-term waste management. The committee noted sharply that radioactive byproducts have been "safely" stored since the early 1940s.
"The committee knows of no member of the public who has ever been injured as a results of these storage operations," it said.