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Congress chops economy-class nuke programme

Cheap, reliable atom bombs strangely unpopular

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The US Congress has decided not to fund development of new nuclear warheads until a firm US nuclear-weapons roadmap is in place.

The Washington Post reports that the House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to cut funding for the continuance of the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) programme. The RRW is the only ongoing US project aimed at producing a new bomb design, following the demise of the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator atomic bunker-buster.

The idea of the RRW is to cut down the costs of maintaining the US nuclear-warhead stockpile. The Cold War nuke-design philosophy was to make the bomb as small and light as possible for a given amount of bang, without much consideration given to shelf life, cost, or avoiding the use of dangerous materials such as beryllium.

RRWs, on the other hand, are meant to be cheaper, longer-lasting, and more certain to go bang properly when set off (which could mean needing fewer of them). The RRW is also meant to avoid the need for any further nuclear test explosions during development, though many have suggested that this would not be the reality if the programme went forward. RRW would also serve to keep alive American bomb-design expertise, which could wither away otherwise.

The RRW cuts were relatively small in a US government context, amounting to just $82m. Congress also chopped off another $550m from President Bush's various nuclear-weapons related budget requests, putting a stop to upgrades at US facilities which store and maintain the existing nuclear arsenal. Efforts have been underway since the mid-1990s to keep US nukes battleworthy without any test-explosion programme by expensively refurbishing and checking the warheads. This rolling maintenance programme has now been cut back.

The House left untouched a further $5.9bn of nuke cash, however, and pumped up non-proliferation activities by $491m. The Congress decision won't become final until later this summer, as American nuclear-weaponry research comes under the Department of Energy and is thus funded under the $32bn energy and water bill. Congressional bickering over flood-control projects led to the delay.

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, David R Obey (Democrat, Wisconsin), said the nuke cuts were made because "there's been no strategy for post-Cold War nuclear weapons".

The Democrats want to see a US policy in place setting out how many warheads will be maintained by America in the post Cold War era. Many of them believe that the existing stockpile could be cut back, removing the more unreliable and fiddly weapons, and still be more than sufficient to meet any likely threat. Some contend that no new nukes will be required for a long time.

Republicans from New Mexico spoke against the decisions, though, suggesting that failure to either build RRWs and/or maintain the existing weapons fully "will lead us either to return to nuclear testing or to abandon nuclear deterrence because we will stop maintaining the stockpile."

The Post didn't fail to note that New Mexico is home to the Sandia and Los Alamos labs, two of the most significant US nuke facilities. The RRW itself would actually be developed mainly by the Lawrence Livermore lab in California if it went ahead, but New Mexico would have received much of the Democrat-slashed money.

The bill will get scribbled all over by the Senate's appropriations sub-committee next week before moving to the upper house, and this might see some cash put back in to keep the RRW ticking over.

The Post report is here. ®

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