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Nuke 'Bunker-Buster' Plans Dropped

The Bush administration is abandoning its push to develop a "bunker-buster" nuclear warhead and instead will pursue a conventional weapon that can penetrate hardened underground targets.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., said Tuesday that lawmakers had agreed drop funding for the proposed nuclear bunker-buster from the Energy Department's budget for the 12 months beginning Oct 1. He said the Energy Department had requested the move because it no longer planned to pursue a nuclear bunker-buster.

The decision was hailed by opponents of new nuclear weapons.

Development of such a warhead has been the subject of intense debate in Congress for several years, although lawmakers have been cool to the proposal.

Administration officials had argued they needed a tactical nuclear warhead that could destroy deeply buried targets including bunkers tunneled into solid rock. Potential adversaries increasingly are building hardened retreats deep beneath the earth, immune to conventional weapons, the officials said.

But opponents said developing such a device could spread nuclear weapons and would signal the world the United States wanted a new generation of nuclear weapons. They also said such weapons would cause significant above-ground radiation fallout.

Domenici, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees DOE's budget, said the conferees agreed to drop funding for the program at the request of the department's National Nuclear Security Administration, the agency that oversees nuclear weapons.

"The focus will now be with the Defense Department and its research into earth-penetrating technology using conventional weaponry," Domenici said in a statement. He said the NNSA "indicated that this research should evolve around more conventional weapons rather than tactical nuclear devices."

Last year, Congress refused to fund the nuclear bunker-buster, so the Energy Department reduced its request to $4 million for the 2006 fiscal year — for research at Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico. Even that was rejected by the House, although the Senate approved the funding. It was just one of the issues that House and Senate members were trying to resolve as part of the DOE budget bill.

"This is a true victory for a more rational nuclear policy," said Stephen Young, a senior analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, a group that advocates curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. "The proposed weapon, more than 70 times the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, would have caused unparalleled collateral damage."

Last April, a National Academy of Sciences panel concluded that an earth-penetrating nuclear device would likely cause the same casualties as a surface burst if the weapons are of the same size. Such a bomb could cause from several thousand to 1 million casualties, depending on its yield and location, according to the report requested by Congress.

At a congressional hearing earlier this year, NNSA chief Linton Brooks acknowledged there is no way to avoid significant radioactive fallout from use of a bunker-buster.

He said the administration never intended to suggest "that it was possible to have a bomb that penetrated far enough to trap all fallout. I don't believe the laws of physics will ever let that be true."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of Congress' most vocal opponents of the bunker-buster, has said the nuclear bunker-buster "sends the wrong signals to the rest of the world by reopening the nuclear door and beginning the testing and development of a new generation of nuclear weapons."