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          Front Page




Nuclear Bunker-Buster Dropped From Budget

By John Fleck
Journal Staff Writer
    Sen. Pete Domenici signed the death warrant for the nuclear bunker-buster Tuesday after defense planners said conventional explosives are the best way to attack deep underground bunkers.
    As a result, $4 million for the nuclear bunker-buster will be dropped from the fiscal 2006 budget, Domenici said.
    National Nuclear Security Administration officials concluded that bunker-busting weapon research under way should focus on conventional weapons, Domenici said.
    National Nuclear Security Administration officials declined comment Tuesday evening, but a document sent to Congress summarizing their position said they had concluded that only non-nuclear bunker-buster work should continue.
    The amount of money to be spent on the nuclear bunker-buster in the coming year was small— less than a tenth of 1 percent of NNSA's nuclear weapons budget. But the issue had become a flash point in debates over the future of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, with members of the arms control community launching a lobbying blitz in recent months to kill the project.
    "It's an important symbolic statement about the lack of value of nuclear weapons," Albuquerque arms control activist Greg Mello said of Tuesday's announcement.
    Mello cautioned against the possibility that research on non-nuclear bunker-busters might be used in nuclear weapons in the future.
    The $4 million would have largely gone to fund a rocket sled test at Sandia National Laboratories. It was unclear Tuesday whether that test might continue, but be geared toward the development of conventional weapons.
    The technical challenge in building bunker-busting weapons is to build a bomb or warhead strong enough to slam into the ground and then detonate once it has burrowed beneath the surface.
    Military planners argued for their development because of the increasing use of deep underground bunkers to house military command centers, as well as the possibility that chemical or biological weapons might be stored in them.
    In the 1990s, Sandia National Laboratories engineers designed a hardened case for the B61 nuclear bomb, allowing a limited earth-penetrating capability. But military planners complained it would not go deep enough, and work began in 2003 on a new, tougher design.
    Critics complained that it marked a dangerous expansion of U.S. nuclear capabilities, and funding for the work has always been controversial. For 2005, Congress killed funding entirely, but the Bush administration had asked for work to begin anew next year.
    Domenici said in a telephone interview late Tuesday that he had been willing to continue trying to get the money through Congress, arguing that the amount of money involved was modest and would merely establish whether the weapon was technically feasible. But he said administration officials told him "they did not want to fight about it."
    The action to kill the bunker-buster came as staff for the House and Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee were putting the final touches on a spending plan for the Department of Energy for fiscal 2006. Domenici said he expects a final agreement on that by the end of the week.

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