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FYI Number 69: June 2, 2004

House Rejects Move to Stop Nuclear "Bunker Buster" Weapon Research

On a largely party line vote, the House of Representatives rejected an amendment to remove the spending authorization for research next year on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP). The 204 "yes" to 214 "no" vote on Rep. Ellen Tauscher's (D-CA) amendment to the FY 2005 Defense Authorization bill sets the stage for Senate consideration of a companion bill in the coming weeks, as well as the FY 2005 Energy and Water Development Appropriations bill.

The Tauscher amendment sought to transfer $27.6 million from a study on the feasibility of RNEP and $9 million from the Advanced Concepts program. $25.0 million was to be transferred to conventional weapons research for "technology applicable to defeat of weapons of mass destruction and hardened, deeply buried targets," with the remainder to be used for defense-wide strategic capability modernization.

The May 20 House floor debate on the amendment was limited to 20 minutes. Tauscher opened her remarks by saying that "resorting to nuclear weapons to destroy hardened targets is a disproportionate response with too many negative ramifications and little benefit." She argued that there would be massive collateral damage and exposure of American troops to radiation from the use of RNEP, mass civilian casualties, damage to U.S. efforts to limit proliferation, and the likelihood of countermeasures by hostile nations in bunker construction.

Rep. Terry Everett (R-AL) was one of several Members who spoke against the amendment, saying that the proposed funding would not authorize RNEP production, but only study its feasibility. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) seemed to summarize the views of RNEP proponents when she said, "Nuclear weapons have been an important part of deterrence over the last 40 years, and the key to their effectiveness is that we need to be able to hold at risk the things that people most value, particularly the leaders of countries whose interests and whose values are very different from our own. And the reality is that those countries are burrowing in their command and control facilities, their chemical weapons, their missiles; and we must continue to hold those at risk." Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) summarized the views of RNEP opponents when he said, "We have got thousands of nuclear weapons in order to achieve deterrence. This weapon is not necessary. It is not only unnecessary, it is counterproductive at a time when we are trying to get countries like Iran and North Korea and countless other want-to-be nuclear countries to give up their nuclear ambition. . . . They are not practical, they are not necessary, and this weapon will not come close to destroying . . . the hardened, deep geological targets for which they are reputedly available."

Later that day the House voted against the Tauscher amendment (see the roll call vote at http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2004/roll203.xml ), as it had also voted against a similar amendment last year at this time. There has not been much movement either way in House sentiment on the RNEP program during the last year. While there are several ways of gauging shifts in voting patterns, one way is by looking at the respective percentages of the total floor vote on each side: over the last year, the percent of voting House members opposing the RNEP program increased by 2%.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
fyi@aip.org
301-209-3095

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