Senate defeats move to stop nuclear bomb study

By Richard Cowan Fri Jul 1, 9:23 AM ET

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate Democrats on Friday failed to stop the Energy Department from studying the feasibility of a "bunker buster" nuclear bomb the Bush administration is considering.

By a vote of 53-43, the Senate refused to delete $4 million in funds to study the experimental weapon that would penetrate the earth and explode to demolish buried enemy targets.

The funds were included in a bill that would fund Energy Department activities in the fiscal year starting on Oct. 1. A House of Representatives version of the bill does not contain funds to study the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.

"We're talking about a study. What's the harm in getting the study?" asked Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, a Virginia Republican.

Democrats said it would send a dangerous signal to other countries that the United States was headed toward development of a new class of nuclear weapons, thus encouraging them to develop their own arsenal.

"What moral authority do we have to ask others to give up their nukes if we're determined to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons of our own?" asked Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (news, bio, voting record), a Democrat.

Besides the $4 million for the Energy Department study, the administration has asked Congress for $4.5 million to fund Pentagon research into the bunker buster. The Pentagon funding was not included in House legislation and the Senate has not yet considered it.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (news, bio, voting record), a California Democrat, cited scientists' beliefs that a bunker buster, if ever used, would spread deadly radiation.

"There is no way you can drive a missile casing deep enough to prevent radioactive spewing," Feinstein said.

The Pentagon has estimated that 70 countries are trying to protect key military assets, such as weapons of mass destruction or command and control facilities, from aerial bombing by hiding them in deep underground bunkers.

The fate of the Energy Department's bunker-buster study will be in the hands of House and Senate negotiators on this funding bill.