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[casi] House repeals research ban

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      Posted on Fri, Nov. 07, 2003

      House repeals research ban for some nuclear weapons
      By Jonathan S. Landay
      Knight Ridder Newspapers

      WASHINGTON - The Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted Friday to repeal a 
10-year-old ban on researching low-power nuclear warheads.

      The Bush administration pushed for the legislation, arguing that the United States must 
maintain the technology and skills needed to develop new weapons to counter threats of chemical, 
biological and nuclear attacks. Critics say it will undermine efforts to curb nuclear proliferation.

      The U.S. move to develop a possible new generation of nuclear weapons comes as the Bush 
administration defends its decision to invade Iraq as necessary in part to prevent deposed leader 
Saddam Hussein from obtaining nuclear weapons.

      President Bush has insisted that he has no plans to build any new nuclear weapons or end a 
10-year U.S. moratorium on underground nuclear tests.

      The repeal of the research ban was contained in a record $400 billion defense authorization 
act for 2004 that the House passed Friday by a vote of 362-40. The bill is expected to win final 
approval next week in the GOP-run Senate and then go to Bush for signing.

      The bill would provide U.S. nuclear laboratories with $6 million to explore new nuclear bomb 
designs and $15 million to conduct a study of the feasibility of modifying existing high-powered 
nuclear weapons to make a warhead that could burrow deep into the Earth and destroy buried bunkers.

      It also would authorize spending $34 million to improve the Nevada Test Site so that it could 
resume underground nuclear test explosions in 18 months rather than the 24 to 36 months it now 

      Critics charged the measures are a step toward resuming underground test blasts and nuclear 
weapons production. The United States built its last nuclear warhead in 1990.

      "We are on the slippery slope back to the dark days of bomb production and testing," said 
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, an advocacy group.

      He and other opponents warned that the measures would make the United States less secure 
because foes such as North Korea and Iran, and potential rivals, such as China, could respond by 
accelerating their nuclear weapons programs.

      "I can only hope that it (the legislation) won't be perceived as a step toward the 
development of new nuclear weapons," said Rep. John Spratt, D-S.C., one of the two sponsors of the 
research ban.

      The bill lifted a decade-old ban prohibiting research and development of nuclear warheads 
with explosive forces of less than 5 kilotons. (The bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945, was 
about 15 kilotons.) Such warheads are known as low-yield weapons or "mini-nukes."

      Any decision to engineer and build a prototype would require congressional approval.

      Administration officials contend that nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal are unsuitable for 
use against growing numbers of deeply buried bunkers or stockpiles of chemical or biological 
weapons. That's because they could devastate civilian areas around the targets and release massive 
amounts of lethal radioactivity.

      Low-yield warheads would cause far less damage to surrounding areas and would not throw up 
massive amounts of radioactive fallout, they insisted.

      "We are seeking to free ourselves from intellectual prohibitions against exploring a full 
range of technical options," Linton Brooks, head of the Energy Department agency in charge of 
nuclear weapons, told a congressional hearing in April.

      Bush's national security strategy sees low-yield weapons as possibly playing key roles in 
deterring and pre-empting chemical and biological attacks on the United States, its troops or its 
allies. U.S. foes would worry that the United States would be more prepared to use nuclear weapons 
of limited power than weapons than would cause huge civilian casualties and release massive 
radioactive clouds.

      Opponents counter that it's technically impossible to build a nuclear weapon that could 
penetrate through earth and rock and destroy deeply buried bunkers.

      There are no materials that could penetrate more than 20 yards of rock, and the massive 
clouds of radioactive dust thrown up by underground explosions could kill large numbers of people, 
they said.

      Sidney Drell, a Stanford University physicist, contended in a March article that "even a 
lower yield, 1-kiloton nuclear bomb detonated 20 to 50 feet underground would eject more than 1 
million cubic feet of radioactive debris, forming a crater about the size of Ground Zero at the 
World Trade Center."

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