House and Senate negotiators approved spending $24.9 million next year to shorten the time required to prepare the Nevada Test Site for underground nuclear tests.
But instead of reducing the preparation time to 18 months, as the Bush administration asked, lawmakers on Wednesday required test readiness to take at least two years. The current preparation time is two to three years.
An aide to Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., one of the negotiators, called 18 months an arbitrary goal, and said negotiators saw no reason to go below 24 months.
The $24.9 million more than $15 million approved in September by the Senate in its version of an annual energy and water spending bill. The House version of the bill did not include money to improve nuclear test readiness.
Agreeing to an amount higher than requested by the White House is unusual because House and Senate negotiators often split the difference in their versions of the bill.
The negotiated bill is expected to get full House and Senate approval, and the signature of President Bush before Congress adjourns this year.
A marginal increase in jobs at the test site might result from the test readiness funding, the Reid aide said.
Despite lowering the time needed to prepare for a resumption of nuclear tests in Nevada, the administration does not intend to end the nation's 11-year testing moratorium, said Anson Franklin, spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration which runs the test site.
"We absolutely do not plan to resume testing unless we discover a problem in the nuclear weapons stockpile that cannot not be fixed by other means," he said.
The last nuclear explosion at the test site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas, occurred on Sept. 23, 1992.
Another provision in the bill would provide $7.5 million, or half the Bush administration's request, for the development of nuclear earth penetrator warheads or bunker busters. The testing of bunker busters could occur at the test site.
Franklin said Bunker busters are not a new nuclear weapon, but existing bombs that could be modified to improve penetration.