Agreement to Fund Nuclear Weapons Research Is OKd

Times Staff Writer

Congressional negotiators agreed Wednesday to spend millions of dollars -- but less than the amount sought by the Bush administration -- to research a new generation of nuclear weapons and otherwise bolster the nation's capacity to produce and test atomic bombs.

The bill, expected to win final House and Senate approval within days, would give the Bush administration $7.5 million, half of what it requested to study nuclear bombs capable of burrowing deeply into the ground before detonating. The Pentagon conceives of these "bunker-buster" weapons, also called "robust nuclear earth penetrators," as a possible response to enemies who hide and harden key targets underground.

The bill would restrict or trim, but not eliminate, other nuclear weapon initiatives for the 2004 fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Advocates said the funding would enable scientists to pursue research important to national security without actually committing the U.S. to build or test new bombs. "It's a pretty fair compromise," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), whose state is a center of weapons research.

But critics said the bill would allow the president to proceed with a unilateralist nuclear policy that could spur a new global arms race, possibly leading such nations as North Korea, Pakistan and India to expand their atomic weapon programs.

"The message that is sent to the rest of the world is that we need additional nuclear weapons, we need 'designer' nuclear weapons," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.). "That is a horrible message."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), another critic, said the bill would lead the U.S. government toward "reopening the nuclear door."

The deal on the $27.3-billion energy and water appropriations bill for fiscal 2004 gave lawmakers momentum in their effort to break deadlocks on spending controversies as they sought to adjourn before Thanksgiving. The disputes include an administration proposal to cut overtime pay for some workers, a congressional effort to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba, new Federal Communications Commission rules on media ownership, and funding levels for international AIDS relief, modernized voting equipment and veterans' health benefits.

So far, four of 13 annual appropriations bills have cleared Congress, funding defense, homeland security, the Interior Department and the legislative branch. A final military construction bill is moving through the House and the Senate. The energy and water bill would be the sixth to head toward enactment. Lawmakers are funding the rest of the government through stopgap spending resolutions.

The energy and water bill is important to lawmakers for two reasons: The money it provides for local water projects and other civil works can help members of Congress win reelection, and the nuclear programs it funds are central to national security and energy policy.

For instance, the bill includes $580 million for the development of a national nuclear-waste burial site at Yucca Mountain in southern Nevada -- $11 million less than the Bush administration sought but $123 million more than was spent in the previous year. The project, authorized after Bush took office in 2001, is highly controversial both in Nevada and along transportation routes for the radioactive waste.

On nuclear weapons, the bill would allocate $10.8 million for development of a new plant to produce plutonium pits, which are key trigger-like devices for new bombs. Although that amount is $12 million less than Bush wanted, it is still a significant investment in weapon-making.

The measure also would spend $24.9 million to help the government prepare for the possible resumption of underground nuclear weapon testing at the Nevada Test Site with two years of notice. That's faster than the current lead time of three years but slower than the 18 months sought by Bush. The U.S. stopped nuclear weapon tests in 1992, during the presidency of Bush's father.

The bill also would provide $6 million for "advanced" weapon concepts, although $4 million would be blocked until the administration issues a report on reductions in the nuclear weapon stockpile. Some of the $6 million could be used to research "low-yield" nuclear weapons with an explosive force of five or fewer kilotons, a major departure from current policy prohibiting such research. Administration officials, however, say decisions on "low-yield" weapon research are pending.

Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water development, told reporters that he was sympathetic to critics of the nuclear weapon initiatives.

"I don't like a lot of this stuff," Hobson said. "I agreed with a lot of what Sen. Feinstein said about sending the wrong message to the rest of the world."

Anson Franklin, a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, which oversees the nation's nuclear weapon complexes, said the Bush administration was pleased that its initiatives were included in the bill. He added: "I gather some of the budget requests were trimmed. We'll have to take a look at that."

John Isaacs, a liberal defense analyst in Washington, said the bill appeared to place "a political check on the Bush administration's plans to produce nuclear weapons" by reducing the administration's spending request.

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