US Scraps Nuclear Weapons Watchdog
Money for new nukes approved in Senate committee
July 31, 2003 - August 9, 2003 -- A US department of energy panel of experts which provided independent oversight of the development of the US nuclear
arsenal has been quietly disbanded by the Bush administration. The decision to close down the National Nuclear Security Administration
Advisory (NNSA) committee has come just days before a closed-door meeting at a US air force base in Nebraska to discuss the
development of a new generation of tactical "mini nukes" and "bunker buster" bombs, as well as an eventual resumption of nuclear
The committee was responsible for overseeing nuclear weapons issues, as
well as holding public hearings and publishing public reports on nuclear weapons information. The typical lifetime of such
federal advisory committees is two years. However the NNSA committee's charter stipulates "The Committee is expected to be
needed on a continuing basis."
An NNSA spokesman, Bryan Wilkes said: "The advisory committee was created
to assist the NNSA administrator during the creation of the NNSA, and it was not intended to go on beyond two years. Clearly
the NNSA is up and running and it is not needed any more."
The committee's disbanding may be a source of frustration to its members,
but it is hardly a surprise. The committee was supposed to meet four times yearly, but according to prominent physicist and
committee member and Sidney Drell, its members were rarely called upon, and it did not meet at all in the past year.
Ed Markey, a Democratic congressman and co-chairman of a congressional
taskforce on non-proliferation, said: "Instead of seeking balanced expert advice and analysis about this important topic,
the department of energy has disbanded the one forum for honest, unbiased external review of its nuclear weapons policies."
The under-reported disbanding of the committee, along with a government
push for increased funding of nuclear weapons research has some critics saying that the Bush administration's aim to free
the world of nuclear weapons doesn't apply to the United States.
The committee's charter said that it's meetings "will be held approximately
four times each year". In fact, it was not summoned at all in the last year of its existence.
"They just didn't call us. We didn't hear from them," Professor Sidney
Drell, a leading American physicist and a former committee member said. Professor Drell and Raymond Jeanloz, a planetary science
professor at the University of California at Berkeley, co-authored an article earlier this year that was highly critical of
the plans for new weapons.
"Rather than moving to develop new nuclear weapons, the United States should
push to strengthen the nonproliferation regime through example and through stronger compliance measures directed at those
who flout its basic purposes," they wrote in the March 2003 edition of Arms Control Today, a few months before the panel was
Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) finds the weapons' nomenclature misleading,
saying that "the mini-nukes and bunker busting warheads will make nuclear weapons more acceptable for use ... They make these
weapons appear just like other (conventional) weapons and they are not."
The statute establishing federal advisory committees requires their dissolution
to be officially gazetted in the federal register but in the end, the NNSA panel was abandoned quietly, by a simple email
to its members.
"The Bush administration is considering policy changes that will alter
the role of nuclear weapons in national defense," Markey said. "Given the importance and sheer complexity of the issues raised
... why was the only independent contemplative body studying nuclear weapons disbanded - and disbanded in such a surreptitious
Daryl Kimball, the head of the independent, Washington-based Arms Control
Association, said: "This will make the department of energy and the NNSA even more opaque. It will be all the more difficult
to understand what they are planning to do."
The Bush administration requested $68 million for the development of the
warheads and for "research into other advanced nuclear weapons technology." A Senate subcommittee gave its support Wednesday
for development of "bunker busting" nuclear warheads and research into other advanced nuclear weapons technology, days after
the House voted to cut funding for the same programs.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chair of the Appropriations subcommittee dealing
with nuclear program, said he expects further attempts on the Senate floor to cut money for the programs. Domenici said he
was shocked by the level of cuts in the House, but said he was confident the degree of cuts being pursued in the House "won't
stand" when a final spending bill is written.
The nuclear programs are part of a $27.3 billion spending bill for the
Energy Department and various other programs that Domenici's panel advanced for consideration by the full Appropriations Committee,
likely later this week.
The Senate bill includes all $15 million the administration has requested
to study the development of an earth-penetrating nuclear warhead, a so-called bunker-buster; $6 million in early research
into mini-nukes of less than 5 kilotons; and $25 million to shorten the lead time necessary to resume underground nuclear
bomb testing from the current 36 months to 18 months.
The Senate bill also would provide all $22 million sought by the Energy
Department to continue environmental studies for a manufacturing plant to make plutonium triggers for the existing nuclear
arsenal. The department has said such a plant is needed to ensure adequate supplies of the plutonium triggers for the aging
The Senate panel refused to cut any of the $68 million the Bush administration
requested for the programs.
The House spending bill would cut funding for the plutonium trigger plant
in half, and cut the bunker-buster money by two-thirds, while eliminating the other funding. Energy Department officials were
stunned by the cuts in the House committee and said they hope to get the money restored when the full House considers the
bill, and will work to keep it in the Senate legislation.
No effort was made Wednesday in the Senate to cut spending for the programs.
However, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca) said she would try to get the money eliminated once the bill gets to the Senate floor.
The Pentagon and the energy department are pushing for the development
of tactical nuclear weapons with yields of less than 5 kilotons and hardened "bunker buster" nuclear bombs, designed to penetrate
deeply buried targets, where enemy leaders or weapons may be hidden.
According to the leaked agenda for the Omaha meeting in early August, Pentagon
and energy department officials will discuss how to test small numbers of these new weapons, and whether this will require
a break from the moratorium on nuclear tests. The US has suspended bomb tests since 1992 and administration officials have
said they see no reason at this time to resume testing, but only want to be better prepared to do so if there again is a need.
In a time of a hawkish administration, where will this research lead us?
Critics argue that the new weapons programs will blur the distinction between conventional and nuclear arms, lead to development
of a new generation of nuclear weapons, and increase the likelihood of global nuclear proliferation, triggering a new arms
The wheels are beginning to grind toward the development of a new generation
of nuclear weapons, Senator Feinstein said, adding that the mini-nukes and bunker busting warheads will make nuclear weapons
more acceptable for use. They make these weapons appear just like other (conventional) weapons, she continued, and they are
-- Edited and excerpted from articles by Julian Borger in The Guardian, Mother Jones, by H. Josef Hebert, Associated Press, San Mateo County Times, and by Edward J. Markey, Rep. (D-MA) and by
Ellen Tauscher in the Washington Post
National Nuclear Security Administration