House Panel Boosts Bush Plan to Build New Nuclear Warheads

May 21st, 2006 - by admin

James Sterngold / San Francisco Chronicle – 2006-05-21 00:10:05

Many Arms Control Experts Say Idea Is Huge Waste of Money

WASHINGTON (May 20, 2006) — A congressional committee took major steps this week toward financing the Bush administration’s controversial program to build new generations of nuclear warheads, roughly doubling the budget for the design of the new weapons while reducing the money for maintaining the old stockpile.

The House Energy and Water Subcommittee passed on Wednesday a budget that increases funding for what is known as the Reliable Replacement Warhead program, or RRW, from the roughly $25 million the White House requested to $52.7 million.

That is a relatively modest amount of money for a program that could end up costing more than $100 billion over the next several decades. The committee, however, took other steps that suggest a firm transition toward the new program is commencing even though the debate over the need for the warheads remains unresolved.

Many arms controls experts have complained that the new RRW program is unnecessary because the existing stockpile is expected to remain in working condition for decades, making the new warheads a huge waste of money.

“They are making an error in shifting resources from a well-proven program of maintaining the stockpile to something that is not proven,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington, which favors arms reductions. “I think this is premature and will come back to haunt them.”

Also, some observers worry that production of the first new nuclear weapons in the United States since the Cold War sends a provocative message to other countries, particularly at a time when the Bush administration is struggling to halt weapons programs in North Korea and Iran.

The new budget appears to set the country on a course toward producing the new weapons. For instance, $25 million of the funding is contingent on the nation’s nuclear administrators finishing a study on how they will transform the facilities for manufacturing and maintaining the new warheads, clearly pushing them to move rapidly to develop their future blueprint for warhead production.

The committee also voted to provide $100 million to plan the complex that will consolidate some weapons manufacturing capabilities, a key component of the RRW program.

In addition, the budget would reduce a number of the programs for maintaining and upgrading the existing warheads, known as the stockpile stewardship program. There is a $98 million reduction of what is known as directed stockpile work, and the budget eliminates $80 million that was to be used to refurbish a cruise missile warhead, known as the W-80. The full House is expected to approve the committee’s budget as soon as next week.

The RRW program has been pushed by some Republicans and Democrats on the theory that the existing stockpile of weapons is aging and getting more expensive to maintain. A new generation of warheads, they say, would be safer, more reliable and cheaper to maintain. Congress has insisted, however, that any new warheads must be deployed without underground testing and that they cannot involve new capabilities. But they must also be safer and more reliable.

Based on last year’s funding, the two weapons design labs, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos, produced competing designs in April that would replace the warhead now used on Trident missiles. Those competing designs are now being assessed, and one is expected to be chosen for further development in November.

Many scientists who are knowledgeable about the weapons programs have said that the current weapons in the stockpile have proven to be in superb working order and that the radioactive plutonium used in the core of the warheads appears to have an even longer useful life than previously estimated.

“The impression that our current arsenal is unreliable is ridiculous and inaccurate,” said Stephen Young a senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington. “They are more reliable than the missiles they fly on.”

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