On November 12, 2002 Congress approved the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2003, H.R. 4546; a bill that authorizes funds for the Defense Department and for the nuclear weapons activites of the Energy Department. Though the final version of this defense bill still contains some serious setbacks for nuclear disarmament, several dangerous aspects of the original version of the bill that was originally approved by the House of Representatives were ultimately removed.

The defense bill funds a request by the administration for $15 million to begin the first year of a three-year feasibility study on another new nuclear warhead, called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), or “bunker buster.” Though the Senate had deleted the funds in its original version of the defense bill, the funding was ultimately approved in conference. The proposed study of this new weapon is chilling because creating more “usable” tactical nuclear weapons increases the chance that the United States will eventually break the taboo on nuclear weapons use.

The bill does require the Defense Department to submit a report before it will have access to the funds. The National Academy of Sciences will conduct a study for Congress on the short-term and long-term effects of using a nuclear earth penetrator on the nearby civilian population and on U.S. military personnel who may carry out operations in the area after such use.

The final authorization bill fully preserves the current prohibition on developing nuclear weapons with yields of less than five kilotons, also known as “mini-nukes.” The original House version of the defense bill threatened to weaken the 1993 Congressional ban and would have allowed research to begin on developing these new nuclear weapons.

The final bill also toned down language originally approved by the House that would have required the Energy Department’s Nevada Test Site to be able to resume nuclear testing within 12 months. Instead, the final bill simply requires the administration to prepare cost estimates of being able to resume testing within 6, 12, 18, and 24 months. Test readiness continues to be an issue of great concern, particularly as Defense Secretary Edward Aldridge has recently urged the nuclear weapons laboratories to reassess the need for nuclear testing.

The significant initiative for advancement of nuclear weapons technologically over the course of this defense bill’s negotiation was startling. That the Democratically controlled Senate had a clear impact on toning down the nuclear weapons language of this year’s defense bill is of equal concern. The Republican-controlled Senate may not have the same influence on the 2004 military spending bills.