Rumsfeld's Nuclear Genie

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

February 7, 2005

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush declared that he will contain the budget deficit and pursue peaceful diplomacy to end the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. But Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's insistence on reviving a wasteful and dangerous nuclear program undermines both goals.

Last year, at the urging of Rep. David L. Hobson (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on energy and water, Congress slashed all funding for Rumsfeld's pet project — studying how to build a nuclear weapon capable of penetrating hardened underground targets. Ever since, administration hawks have been howling that the United States would be imperiled without the "bunker buster" weapons.

As the Pentagon has acknowledged, Rumsfeld sent a memo last month to outgoing Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham urging him to restore funds for the program in next year's budget.

The administration is stressing that the study is a research program and that Congress would have to give the go-ahead for actually building bunker busters. But its efforts make a mockery of U.S. attempts to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons around the globe. How can the administration plausibly claim that it wants to halt the spread of these weapons even as it seeks to invent new ones and drastically lower the threshold for using them?

What's more, there's no reason that precision-guided conventional weapons can't perform the same task of shattering bunkers. The problem with a nuclear warhead is that, according to scientific experts, the casing would almost certainly shatter as it penetrated the ground. The result: Tons of radioactive material would be released into the air.

And then there's the price tag. According to the Energy Department, the cost to taxpayers to research and build this dud would be almost $500 million over five years.

The military can always come up with reasons for new weapons, but lawmakers were right to stuff the nuclear genie back in the bottle last year. They should not allow Rumsfeld to reopen it.