- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2003

The Senate has ended a 10-year moratorium on the research and development of small nuclear weapons but voted yesterday to limit new exploration to research only.

“This step is just common sense,” said Sen. John W. Warner, Virginia Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “Why would we want to prevent any type of research on weapons that might contribute to improving our national security?”

The Senate voted 51-43 largely on party lines Tuesday night to lift the ban on the research. The chamber voted yesterday 96-0 to limit any study to research only.

But Democrats warned that research leads to development and, ultimately, deployment.

And in the meantime, they said, the shift in nuclear policy will undermine the United States’ credibility as it tries to persuade rogue and other nations to quit striving for nuclear arms.

“The nuclear door is going to be reopened, and this administration is going to walk through it,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, predicting the arrival of “a new generation of nuclear weapons.”

But to get any new weapons off the drawing table and into testing, the Pentagon will be required to return to Congress for explicit permission.

Administration officials said that the lifting of the research ban will enable the United States to study a new “bunker-buster” bomb that could be used against terrorists.

“It’s a study,” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said. “It’s nothing more and it’s nothing less. And it’s not pursuing and it’s not developing.”

As part of the bill authorizing next year’s funding for the Department of Defense, the Pentagon requested about $20 million to research a new “low-yield” atomic weapon that could be used to burrow deep into the ground where terrorists such as al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden seek refuge.

Terrorists have tunneled deep under mountains to set up underground laboratories, manufacturing plants and storage facilities, Mr. Rumsfeld said. “That means that there are an increasing number of weapons — and that includes nuclear, biological and chemical — that are in deeply buried areas.”

The Senate vote Tuesday night paves the way for that research by lifting the ban on 5-kiloton nuclear weapons.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, called the Bush administration’s nuclear policy “reckless” and warned of a “dramatic nuclear escalation and the real possibility of nuclear war.”

And more ominous, Mr. Kennedy said, is that researching new atomic weapons could lead to wider proliferation of nuclear bombs.

“The fact of the matter is, the world is filled with theater nuclear weapons already,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “The Russians have thousands of them and … more than a handful of nations are currently working on the development of nuclear weapons and many of them are terrorist states.”

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and his party’s ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, echoed a concern held by many Democrats.

The United States has charmed, cajoled and threatened other countries away from going down the path of nuclear armament, Mr. Levin said. “And yet, the message from this administration is that while we’re telling everybody else ‘Don’t go down that road,’ we are going to go down that road again ourselves. It undermines the whole position taken by this country.”

Mr. Rumsfeld disagreed.

“I would make just the opposite case,” he said. “I would make the case that by studying it, it’s a signal to the world that maybe that isn’t a good place for them to be investing.”

The 5-kiloton nuclear weapon envisioned by the Defense Department would be about one-third the size of “Little Boy,” the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, that led to the end of World War II.

That was little consolation to Mr. Kennedy. “A nuke is a nuke is a nuke,” he said, “and a half of Hiroshima or a quarter of Hiroshima is completely unacceptable.”

But in the end, it was Mr. Warner who prevailed.

“We have a responsibility to ensure the safety and security of all Americans,” he told his colleagues before the vote. “We should not place artificial limits on the intellectual work of our gifted scientists to explore new technologies, to understand what is possible as well as what potential adversaries could be exploring.”

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