Congress puts breaks on Bush nuke warhead plan, encouraging dismantlement

frontpageingressimage_Capitol-hill004_300.jpg Photo: Nils Bøhmer/Bellona

The nudge to the White House from Congress to rethink its antiquated nuclear weapons policy comes amid several signals that a new Cold War is on the verge of breaking out between Washington and Moscow, several of the staffers interviewed said, and – contrary to White House wishes – seeks to significantly boost funding on the dismantlement of nuclear warheads.

Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin entered this month’s Group of Eight (G-8) Summit at loggerheads over a proposed missile defense system that Washington wishes to place in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Though Putin countered Bush’s plan with a suggestion that the anti-missile system be located in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan – where Russian leases a radar station – the Bush plan had Putin speaking Cold War language prior to the summit. In an interview with reporters from G-8 nations, Putin threatened to target Europe with nuclear missiles if Bush pushed ahead. The two leaders are holding further talks on the missile shield in July.

Washington still hovering a finger over the red button

Yet, as the Bush administration enters its final years, it is becoming increasingly clear, both in hindsight and current activity that the Bush Administration is still uncomfortably trigger happy around the big red button – not only against Russia but all comers.

Indeed, late last week, Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, Christopher Meyer, said he had talked London into joining forces with the United States in Afghanistan because he feared American forces would drop an atomic bomb on the country – then suspected of harbouring Osama Bin Laden, the recognized terrorist mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks on the New York and Washington. His whereabouts remains unknown.

"(Tony) Blair’s real concern was that there would be quote unquote ‘a knee-jerk reaction’ by the Americans … they would go thundering off and nuke… the place without thinking straight," Meyer said on a British television documentary on Blair’s years as prime minister.

Congress says ‘whoa’ to cowboy nuke programme
US President George Bush had hoped to have a new nuclear warhead designed, engineered and in place by 2012. The House Appropriations Committee – which controls funding for the US nuclear arms complex – gave a thumbs down to the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) programme developed by the Bush Administration in late May, and demanded more thorough studies rationalizing keeping the US on Cold War level nuclear footing.

On Monday, congressional spokesmen told Bellona Web that the House Appropriations Committee nixed the RRW plan in its report on the current US nuclear posture.

"Currently there exists no convincing rationale for maintaining the large number of existing Cold War nuclear weapons, much less producing additional warheads," said the committee report on the fiscal 2008 Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill released last week and obtained by Bellona Web.

House bill to triple funding on nuke dismantlement
The House Appropriations Committee bill more than triples the amount the Bush administration is asking for dismantlement of old warheads and adds $30 million to modify a facility at the Nevada nuclear test site so it can be used for dismantling weapons. At present, the only facility that does that work is the Pantex plant near Amarillo, Texas, which also refurbishes currently deployed weapons.

The full democrat-dominated House is expected to vote on the measure this week.

The Bush administration had sought $88 million for the RRW program next year so that cost and engineering studies could be completed and a decision could be reached on congressional approval to build the first RRW model, with the first new warheads ready by 2012.

The House, however, has already passed the fiscal 2008 Defense Authorization Bill, which reduced RRW funding and called for development of a new nuclear weapons strategy before steps are taken to produce new warheads.

The Senate has yet to act on the authorisation or the appropriations measure. But the Senate Armed Services and Appropriations committees are expected to follow in the footsteps of the House of Representatives by reducing proposed RRW spending and demanding development of a new nuclear weapons policy, a senior Democratic senate staffer told Bellona Web.

North Dakota’s Senator Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee handling the nuclear programme, has indicated he is thinking along the same lines, the staffer, who is familiar with Dorgan’s views, said.

Could Bush pass nuke policy to his successor?
Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that handles strategic weapons, said in an interview with The Washington Post last week that she expects that the question of future US nuclear weapons policy will be passed to the next administration, since the Bush White House is preoccupied with the grinding war it is leading in Iraq.

What the House appropriations bill demands
The House appropriations bill eliminates RRW funding and directs the Energy and Defense departments and the intelligence agencies to develop a "comprehensive nuclear defense strategy based on current and projected global threats." And it slows down funding of the Bush administration’s programme to modernise the facilities where nuclear weapons are built, stored and dismantled.

"These multi-billion dollar initiatives are being proposed in a policy vacuum without any administration statement on the national security environment that the future nuclear deterrent is designed to address," the report said.

"It is premature to proceed with further development of the RRW or a significant nuclear complex modernization plan."

The committee pointed out that neither the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review last year nor the administration’s 2001 Nuclear Posture Review "provided a long term nuclear weapons strategy or the defined total nuclear stockpile requirements for the 21st century."

Charles Digges