« Return to this article

Know the West

New nuke studies are in the works


When Congress passed the $27.3 billion Water and Energy Authorization Bill on Nov. 18, lawmakers voted to do more than revamp harbors and fund physics labs; they also set aside money for new nuclear weapons research, and reduced the time it will take to fire up the nation’s nuclear testing grounds.

The bill included $6 million for "mini-nukes" under 5 kilotons (a 13-kiloton bomb destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima during World War II) and $7.5 million for "bunker busters," designed to destroy underground targets.

Congress also committed $25 million to reducing "test readiness" time for nuclear weapons-testing at the Nevada Test Site. The site has been quiet since 1992, when the United States tested the last of more than 900 nuclear bombs. Since then, scientists have used computer modeling to make sure the nation’s nuclear stockpile is "safe and secure," says Darwin Morgan, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration in Las Vegas.

The agency has kept the Nevada Test Site ready, so bombs could be tested within two to three years if the need arose. Now, under the new law, the site must be ready to roll in less than two years.

While Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn, R, is against the federal government’s plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain, he’s not likely to oppose nuclear testing. "Historically, the state has been pretty passive about weapons testing," says Bob Loux, executive director of the state’s Agency for Nuclear Projects. "Now, we have a Republican governor who defers to the president on national security issues."

The author is an assistant editor of High Country News.

Note: this article appears with these three additional news articles in a spread about Congressional politics:

- Utahns beat back radioactive waste

- Forest protection on the honor system

- As Congress adjourns, the environment is left in limbo