Granting a wish of the Bush administration, the US Senate late Tuesday gave its support to repealing a decade-old ban on research into low-yield nuclear weapons that defense officials say may be necessary to combat new security threats.
By a vote of 51 to 43, senators rejected an amendment by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein that would have kept the ban in place, displaying their determination to give the green light to studies of a new generation of nuclear weapons.
The vote came amid debate on the 2004 Defense Authorization Bill that would give the Pentagon US$400.5 billion to fund military operations, modernize its arsenal and improve the living conditions of men and women in uniform in the fiscal year starting on October 1.
But several provisions tucked inside the bill have drawn fire from arms-control advocates, who argue that after proclaiming an end to the Cold War, the administration of President George W. Bush is positioning itself to engage in a new spiral of the nuclear arms race.
One of the provisions is the repeal of the so-called Spratt-Furse amendment adopted in 1993 with the purpose of strengthening an international moratorium on nuclear testing. The amendment prohibits both research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons.
Another allocates US$15 million to conduct a feasibility study for building new earth-penetrating nuclear munitions that military experts say could be useful as bunker busters.
In addition, the bill contains language requiring the Energy Department to boost its readiness for underground nuclear tests by reducing preparatory time from up to 36 months to just a year and a half.