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Budget includes funds for study of nuclear bunker buster

WASHINGTON—The Bush administration is trying to resurrect a controversial study into whether a nuclear weapon could be designed to burrow deep into the earth and destroy underground bunkers.

Congress killed the study last year, partly out of concern that it undercut U.S. efforts to curb other countries' development of nuclear weapons.

Under the administration's proposed 2006 federal budget, the Department of Energy would spend $4 million on the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator study, while the Department of Defense would contribute $4.5 million.

The Energy Department, the builder and caretaker of the nation's nuclear arsenal, would spend another $14 million in 2007, the final year of the study, while the Defense Department would spend $3.5 million, according to budget documents and officials.

While the amounts are small compared with proposed overall defense spending in 2006 of about $440 billion, which includes the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons budget, the attempt to restart the study could ignite a bruising fight with Congress.

"Congress clearly rejected the Bush administration's request for bunker busters and other nuclear weapons last year," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., a leading critic of the study, which started in May 2003.

The drive last year to cancel the study's funding was led by Rep. David Hobson, R-Ohio, who was then the chairman of a House of Representatives subcommittee that oversees the Department of Energy's nuclear weapons budget. He's expected to retain the post in the new Congress.

At the time, Hobson contended that the study and other administration nuclear-weapons initiatives undermine U.S. security by encouraging other countries to pursue nuclear arsenals.

He and other opponents of the bunker-busting bomb argued that the money would be better spent ensuring that the nation's existing nuclear weapons remain safe and reliable as they get older.

Hobson declined at a conference last week to say how he would treat an administration attempt to restore the money for the study.

An aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, said only that Hobson would "give the president's budget serious and fair consideration."

Administration officials have expressed concerns about growing numbers of deeply buried underground bunkers in countries such as North Korea, which they contend could be used to develop or store nuclear, biological or chemical weapons.

The bunker-buster study is aimed at determining whether the nuclear explosive packages of two existing warheads—the B-61 and the B-83—could be housed in a casing capable of burrowing deep into earth and rock before exploding.

Proponents argue that the shockwaves would destroy underground facilities but the explosions deep underground wouldn't release large amounts of radioactivity that could kill a lot of civilians.

Opponents respond that it's impossible to limit such fallout or build a bomb casing that could withstand the impact of being dropped from high altitudes.

They contend that conventional precision-guided bombs could be used to seal the entrances and ventilation systems of deeply buried bunkers.

The proposed DOE funds for 2006 and 2007 would go to the Sandia National Laboratory for tests in which bomb cases on high-speed sleds would ram into concrete targets, according to Anson Franklin, a DOE spokesman.

The Defense Department would use its proposed funds for tests in which bomb cases would be dropped from aircraft, according to congressional officials.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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