Nuclear Weapons

Congress Zeroes Out Money for the Reliable Replacement Warhead. Part Funding for Global Nuclear Energy Partnership.

12.17.07 | 3 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

The spending bill just agreed by Congress over the weekend explicitly specifies zero funding for the Reliable Replacement Warhead, or RRW, and support for the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, but below the administration’s request.

The RRW is a new nuclear weapon that the administration claims is essential to maintaining the integrity of the nuclear arsenal. Most outside experts believe that existing nuclear weapons are more than adequately reliable. Moreover, as I have commented previously in this blog, the Reliable Replacement warhead will almost certainly not be more reliable than current warheads and absolutely certainly will not be meaningfully more reliable. Moreover, it will not replace existing warheads but be deployed alongside them for decades, and it is not even the reliable replacement warhead, because a minimum of four new types were planned.

This does not mean that the RRW is dead forever. The Congress has not said “No!” to any future warhead program. Instead, the Congress has stated quite clearly that the administration was moving forward with plans for a new warhead without thinking through what a new nuclear warhead is for. The Congress blocked funding this year and required the administration to develop a plan for what the scientific capabilities of the National Labs ought to be. The relevant Committees of both the House and Senate have written quite emphatic language that the administration needs to go back to the drawing board of nuclear weapons and explain why we need nuclear weapons before asking for money for new ones. I want to thank David Culp of the Friends Committee on National Legislation for sending out the Congressional language on the RRW.

Another major program of interest to the Federation is the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership, or GNEP, which received $179M all together. Other non-GNEP expenses are folded in there so this represents a small cut from last year’s spending. (Thanks to Shervin Boloorian of the Union of Concerned Scientists for alerting us to the GNEP budget numbers.) (Keep in mind that last year, the government operated under a continuing resolution, which allows the administration some leeway in spending, so the administration spent more on GNEP than would have been approved by Congress in an appropriation.)

The GNEP is a plan to restart commercial plutonium reprocessing in the United States after a three decade hiatus. The Federation opposes the GNEP because the world wide proliferation of plutonium reprocessing technology presents a grave risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. And there is no balancing benefit. Reprocessing is more expensive than direct disposal, the energy benefit is quite limited until a new generation of advanced fast neutron reactors is developed and, finally, if the long term goal is to develop breeder reactors by the end of the century, then the last thing we should be doing is burning up the plutonium now. Plutonium reprocessing is a good idea in theory that does not work in practice, at least for now. It might make great sense eventually but “eventually” is probably no sooner than 2070 and possibly 2100. Even if plutonium reprocessing turns out to be technically feasible and economically justifiable, the country would be making a huge mistake by prematurely forcing itself to choose among heo technical choices available today. You don’t have to be opposed to reprocessing to be opposed to the administration’s program. We should revisit this question in another 50 years.

This bill was agreed by the joint Senate-House conference committee and must be voted on the floor and is subject to amendment. Once a bill gets this far, however, amendments are hard, although certainly not impossible. And, finally, keep in mind that President Bush might veto the whole thing. If that happens, the Congress might just give up and fall back on a continuing resolution, which means the country just goes back to last year’s budget. But since last year we also had a continuing resolution, a second continuing resolution would put the country back to its Fiscal Year 2006 budget, which included money for RRW and GNEP.