November 2003 witnessed the passing of the Defense Authorization Bill (HR1588) and Energy and Water Appropriations Bill (HR 2754) for Fiscal Year 2004. These bills provide authorization and funding for the nuclear weapons activities of both the US Department of Energy and the US Department of Defense.

The 2004 bills include proposals to research a new generation of “usable” nuclear weapons, construct a plutonium pit facility and shorten readiness for nuclear testing, revealing the administration’s intent to rely on its nuclear forces for many decades to come – a stark contrast to US demands that other nations should forgo their nuclear arms.

Defense Authorization Bill
This bill authorizes annual US defense programs, including the nuclear weapons budget which is allocated in the Energy and Water Appropriations Bill.

The 2004 Defense Authorization Bill includes provisions that would authorize funding for:

  • Research on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) or nuclear “bunker buster”;
  • Research on Advanced Nuclear Weapons Concepts for the development of low-yield nuclear weapons or “mini-nukes”;
  • Design, building and environmental review of a new nuclear bomb plant known as the Modern Pit Facility (MPF);
  • Reduction of Enhanced Test Readiness from between 24-36 months to 18 months.

Most significantly, Congress voted to repeal of the Spratt-Furse amendment. Adopted as part of the 1994 Defense Authorization bill, the Spratt-Furse legislation prohibits the research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons (five kilotons or less). A final vote took place in November 2003 at the Conference Committee on Defense Authorization, where the Spratt-Furse ban was repealed by a House of Representatives vote of 362-40 and a Senate vote of 95-3. The bill, allocating $401billion, was signed by President Bush on 24 November 2003.

Energy and Water Appropriations Bill
The Energy and Water Appropriations Bill details the Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear budget, covering funds for the development and production of US nuclear weapons. In July 2003, the House accepted Senator Dianne Feinstein’s (D-CA) amendments, which included the following modifications to the administration’s request:

  • Cut spending on the RNEP from $15 million to $5 million;
  • Eliminate $6 million on Advanced Nuclear Weapons Concepts for the design of “mini-nukes”;
  • Eliminate $25 million allocated for “Enhanced Test Readiness” which proposes to shorten nuclear test readiness from 24-36 to 18 months;
  • Cut spending on planning and environmental review for the MPF from $23 million to $11 million.

Most of these proposals, however, were restored in the Senate in September 2003. The bill was reconciled at the House-Senate Conference Committee the following November, where funds totaling $27 billion were approved for water and energy programs. The House voted 387-36 to approve the final version of the bill, and the Senate later approved the bill by a unanimous voice vote. The 2004 Energy and Water Appropriations bill was signed by the President on 1 December 2003

What the Bills Approved

Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP)/ Nuclear “Bunker Busters”
The Bush administration claims that current US nuclear weapons are unsuitable for use against growing numbers of deeply buried bunkers or stockpiles of chemical and/or biological weapons in enemy states and calls for developing the nuclear “bunker buster.” Designed to withstand high-speed collision with the ground, the “bunker buster” is a nuclear bomb capable of boring through 20-30 feet of rock or concrete before exploding. Research and design activities are currently taking place at Livermore (California) and Los Alamos (New Mexico) nuclear weapons laboratories, both of which are managed by the University of California.

Unlike the “mini-nuke,” the “bunker buster” is a high yield weapon of between 100 to 300 kilotons (the Hiroshima bomb which killed 140,000 people was 15 kilotons). The detonation of such a weapon would create massive collateral damage; the targeting of underground stockpiles of chemical and/or biological weapons could spread dangerous contaminants and between 10,000-50,000 people would be exposed to a fatal dose radiation within 24 hours if used in urban areas.

The 2004 Defense Authorization bill approved the continuation of current research on the nuclear “bunker buster.” Under its guidelines, scientists at nuclear weapons labs are able to draft detailed plans of nuclear “bunker busters,” but must seek approval from Congress prior to the commencement of engineering work on its production – a term often referred to as “bending metal.” The 2004 Energy and Water Appropriations Bill approved $7.5 million in funds for the research and development (if further authorized by Congress) of the “bunker buster,” half of the $15 million that the Bush administration had requested.

Low-yield nuclear weapons/“Mini-nukes”
The concept of “mini-nukes” involves the development of small-scale nuclear warheads which are under five kilotons. With an explosive impact that is small and easier to control, the Pentagon argues that such weapons would be more accurate to target, thereby minimizing collateral damage and inducing only small amounts of radioactive fallout. Research of such weapons is also taking place at Livermore and Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratories.

Since the Spratt-Furse amendment in 1994, research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons or “mini-nukes” has been prohibited. The introduction of “mini-nukes” would blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weaponry, increasing the likelihood of their use in conflict.

The passing of the 2004 Defense Authorization Bill was significant in revoking the Spratt-Furse amendment, reversing a decade of self-imposed restrictions. The 2004 Energy and Water Appropriations bill granted the full $6 million requested by the Bush administration for Advance Concept studies of “mini nukes.” $4 million of this amount will, however, be contingent on the administration’s submittal of a Nuclear Weapons Stockpile report to Congress, detailing reductions made to the US nuclear stockpile. As with the ‘bunker busters,” scientists are able to perform research on the development of “mini nukes,” but must receive Congressional approval prior to plans for production.

Modern Pit Facility
A plutonium pit is a steel encased ball that forms the explosive core of nuclear weapons. It serves as a trigger for the fission of atoms within a nuclear warhead, ensuring its explosion upon impact.

The US had observed a 14-year moratorium since the 1989 closure of the Rocky Flats plutonium pit facility in Colorado. However, on 22 April 2003, Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory announced on that it had produced the first (small-scale) US plutonium pit, effectively re-establishing the nation’s capability to manufacture new plutonium cores for nuclear weapons. The DOE estimates that certification of Los Alamos produced pits will be complete by 2007, thus authorizing the laboratories to produce 10 pits annually for testing purposes.

In addition, the DOE has also launched plans to build a Modern Pit Facility (MPF), a new nuclear bomb plant that would boost production in excess of 500 plutonium pits a year. Based on this, each year’s production would equal the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world, that of China’s. The construction of the MPF could produce the next generation of nuclear weapons with the introduction of “mini-nukes” and “bunker busters” and could also facilitate the contingency held open by the Bush administration to bring old nuclear weapons out of storage and back on active duty.

The MPF will cost between $2 to $4 billion to construct, with estimated annual operational costs of $300 million. The facility is due to be constructed by 2020 and an environmental investigation is being prepared to determine how and where the pits should be manufactured. The DOE plans to name a location for the plant by April 2004 and is considering the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina; the Pantex Plant facility in Texas; the Nevada Test Site; and sites at Los Alamos and Carlsbad in New Mexico.

With over 10,000 intact warheads, the US has manufactured enough pits for this stockpile, with another 5,000-12,000 pits in reserve. The renewed production of plutonium pits contravenes US commitments to de-emphasize its reliance on nuclear weapons and adds to speculations regarding Bush’s nuclear weapons ambitions. Plans to launch the MPF and the development of the Los Alamos pit facility coincides with the administration’s plans to increase the US nuclear arsenal and develop a new generation of nuclear weapons.

The 2004 Defense Authorization bill approved plans for the MPF while the 2004 Energy and Water Appropriations bill allocated only $11 million for the project, $12 million short of the $23 billion that the White House had originally requested.

Enhanced Test Readiness
Despite the current 11-year US test moratorium, the Bush administration has called for the recommencement of nuclear testing in order to prevent the “degradation” of the US nuclear arsenal.

The last nuclear explosion at the main US nuclear testing ground, the Nevada Test Site, occurred on 23 September 1992. A US test moratorium was subsequently established in 1994, and between 24-36 months was required to prepare the site for the resumption of full-scale testing. For Fiscal Year 2004, the Bush administration has requested the shortening of this time to 18 months.

While Bush insists that he will not end the moratorium, simultaneous plans for increased funding towards nuclear testing and enhanced readiness of the Nevada Test Site form part of a well-coordinated effort to resume production of nuclear weapons, including new and untested weapons.

The 2004 Defense Authorization bill allocated $34 million in funds to improve the Nevada Test Site. The 2004 Energy and Water Appropriations bill approved $25 million in spending toward Enhanced Test Readiness, but restricted the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to improve its current test readiness capability to 24 months rather than the administration’s proposal of 18 months.

Analysis: What do the Bills mean?

In the 2002 US Nuclear Posture Review, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stated that the US nuclear infrastructure had “atrophied,” and emphasized the importance of revitalizing it “to increase confidence in the deployed forces, eliminate unneeded weapons and mitigate the risks of technological surprise.” Furthermore, the Pentagon report, “Future Strategic Strike Force” asserts its aims “to transform the nation’s forces to meet the demands placed on them by a changing world order.” The report advocates a new role for nuclear weapons in US strategy, making them “relevant to the threat environment” in the “war on terror.”

The Bush administration’s view is that US must obtain the technology and skills needed to counter threats of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. In April 2003, Linton Brooks, administrator at the NNSA and the Under Secretary of Energy for Nuclear Security told a Congressional hearing, “We are seeking to free ourselves from intellectual prohibitions against exploring a full range of technical options.”

Despite restrictions of certain funds, the approval of the Defense Authorization and Energy and Water Appropriation bills for 2004 shows strong support for most requests sought by the Bush administration. To critics this indicates moving a step closer to realizing the administration’s aggressive nuclear doctrine. The authorization of the bills further confirms to the world that nuclear weapons constitute a central component of the US defense strategy, prompting other countries to redouble their own efforts to acquire nuclear arms and begin nuclear testing.

The Bush administration’s “vertical proliferation” plans contravene US commitments to de-emphasize reliance on nuclear weapons as well as disregard pledges made under Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in taking steps towards disarmament. While the Bush administration demands that North Korea, Iran and other countries renounce their nuclear ambitions and submit to inspections in accordance with the NPT, the US does not engage in a process of transparent and irreversible reduction and elimination of its own arsenal.

As Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed ElBaradei, recently stated, “Double standards are being used here. The US government insists that other countries do not possess nuclear weapons.” He adds, “On the other hand they are perfecting their own arsenal. I do not think that corresponds with the treaty they signed.”

By assigning a new, more “usable” role for nuclear weapons, the US is increasing the probability of nuclear weapons use, either by a nation or terrorist group. This would make it more likely, not less, that nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction would be used against the US. Unless effective measures are enforced to curb the current administration, the US will be guilty of leading the world down the slippery slope of an emerging global nuclear arms race.

Opportunities are still available to prevent Bush’s aggressive nuclear plans from materializing. The future deployment of the administration’s new nuclear strategy will depend upon the outcome of the next presidential election, as well as congressional debates over the next few years. These, in turn, will depend upon US and international citizens engaging in a debate on future nuclear policies, and calling on Congress and presidential candidates to take a principled stance against the dangerous Bush nuclear policies.

*Justine Wang is the Research and Advocacy Coordinator at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.