By DANIEL SNEIDER
KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
The Bush administration has a curious policy when it comes to nuclear weapons -- not only to stop their spread but to build them.
The administration's proposed budget for the Department of Energy, which oversees our nuclear labs and maintains our arsenal, actually increases spending on nuclear weapons to $6.6 billion. This comes at a time when the United States is dramatically cutting its nuclear stockpile and seeking to stop other countries from going nuclear.
Some of that spending is justified. Aging weapons need to be refurbished. The scientific work to maintain the reliability of our arsenal without underground testing is crucial. And we need to keep engaged the scientists and engineers who could design and build weapons if the nuclear arms race resumes.
Unfortunately, the administration seems determined to restart that race all on its own.
The proposed budget contains funding for a new, controversial nuclear weapon: a "bunker buster," formally known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator. This is a warhead that can burrow deep into the earth, even through rock or concrete, and destroy buried command centers or bunkers.
Some nuclear planners argue the need for a more flexible arsenal to meet the new threats from the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction to countries such as Iran and North Korea.
But the U.S. military has never itself articulated the need for such a weapon. New weapon designs inevitably lead toward the need to resume testing, which was suspended in 1992 by President Bush's father.
Even more dangerous, it undermines the ability to halt nuclear proliferation. It is pretty hard to argue against other countries developing nuclear weapons -- much less the efforts of established nuclear powers such as China and Russia to develop their own new weapons -- when we are doing the same thing.
In May, an international conference will review the status of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, an event that occurs every five years. But the treaty review is heading for a train wreck, in part because of the glaring contradictions of the administration's persistent attempt to develop new nuclear weapons.
There is bipartisan understanding in Congress of this danger. Last year, thanks to the leadership of David Hobson, an eight-term Republican congressman from Ohio, Congress halted all funding for the bunker buster and other new weapons development activities, including proposals to increase the readiness of the Nevada nuclear test site to resume its work.
The administration claimed it was only doing a theoretical study of the bunker buster and other weapons ideas -- some of it at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory -- not actually preparing to build and test them. But last year administration officials blew their own cover by presenting a detailed, four-year projection for the RNEP program. While the funding for 2005 was only $27 million, it escalated rapidly in the following years, with a five-year total of almost $500 million.
The later phases of the program included not only a completed warhead design but the beginning of a system to manufacture it. Hobson, who heads the House appropriations subcommittee on energy, put the brakes on.
But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the nuclear planners at the Energy Department haven't given up. This time, Rumsfeld told them to just request two years of study funding, leaving out what follows. The amounts appear small -- about $8 million for fiscal year 2006, and $14 million the next year.
Cold War mentality
Hobson is not likely to be deceived. In a speech earlier this month to the Arms Control Association, he politely assailed the administration for being stuck in a Cold War mentality when it comes to nuclear weapons.
If nuclear terrorism is now the biggest threat we face, Hobson said, "We need to change our priorities to prevent such a devastating attack." He compared the huge spending on our nuclear arsenal with the much smaller sums spent to secure nuclear materials in places such as Russia, materials that could fall into the hands of terrorists.
No doubt the pressure on Hobson and his colleagues will be intense. It is time the public had its say as well.
X Daniel Sneider is foreign affairs columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.