- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

House and Senate negotiators recently resolved their differences over the 2004 energy and water spending bill, and the resulting conference report now awaits final action in both chambers. Beyond the customary pork-barrel water projects, the legislation also funds important post-Cold War nuclear-weapons programs intended to deflect rogue nations from coming into possession of weapons of mass destruction.

On balance, the final product represents a step forward. But it is not as big a step as is needed. Compromises were necessary, largely because the House’s chief negotiator, Rep. David Hobson of Ohio, balked at fully supporting national-security policies embraced by President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. On the other hand, Mr. Hobson achieved an important, constructive victory by obtaining a major funding increase for the creation of a secure national nuclear-waste depository at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

Mr. Bush requested, and the Senate initially approved, $15 million to study the development of small, tactical, earth-penetrating nuclear weapons capable of destroying deeply buried, hardened WMD storage sites while limiting above-ground damage. The conference committee provided $7.5 million in funding for the project.

Unlike the House version that included no funding, the final bill also provides $6 million to study “advanced weapons concepts,” which could include very-low-yield nuclear weapons ranging from 5 kilotons to 0.1 kiloton of TNT. Researching low-yield weapons had been prohibited since 1994, but the conference committee dealing with the defense authorization bill recently repealed that prohibition.

Such nuclear devices might prove valuable in destroying nuclear-, biological- and chemical-weapons sites, while, at the same time, vastly limiting collateral damage. The Pentagon’s current Cold War nuclear arsenal contains powerful weapons designed to deter an attack by a superpower of the Soviet Union’s caliber. Their use against much smaller states, such as North Korea and Iran, would be so destructive that the United States would be reluctant to use them. Because today’s threats emerging from North Korea and Iran are much different from the those of the Cold War, deterrence must change to address them. Having smaller, mission-specific weapons in the arsenal might well serve as a greater deterrent against these rogue states than weapons that are unlikely to be used.

The fact that the United States has not tested a nuclear weapon since 1992 has not deterred India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran from pursuing nuclear-weapons development. Today, it would take the United States about three years to prepare to conduct a nuclear test. The Bush administration sought to shorten that period to 18 months; in another compromise, the bill provides nearly $25 million to reduce the lead time to two years.

While not going as far as we would like, the compromise bill nonetheless takes some important steps in the right direction.

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