WASHINGTON (AP) -- The House Armed Services Committee wants the Pentagon to consider arming interceptors of the national missile defense shield with nuclear warheads.
Sen. Ted Stevens, a supporter of missile defense, has said the prospect of nuclear-tipped interceptors alarms many people in Alaska, where part of the system would be based.
The House panel gave its approval to nuclear consideration in a report explaining the annual defense authorization bill.
''The committee understands that the (Defense) Department may investigate other options for ballistic missile defense -- nuclear-armed interceptors, blast fragmentation warheads and directed energy technologies -- as alternatives to current approaches ...,'' the Republican-led committee wrote in its report. ''The committee would consider such an examination of alternatives to be a prudent step, consistent with the commitment to evaluate all available technological options for this critical mission.''
Committee reports are meant to guide courts, government departments and the public regarding the purpose and meaning of a law.
The nuclear idea surfaced last month in newspaper reports, which said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had encouraged a senior advisory board to begin exploring it.
Stevens, the senior member of Alaska's congressional delegation, dismissed the media accounts as troublesome speculation. He said the reports had prompted a lot of late-night calls to his office, and that anyone in the defense secretary's office talking about nuclear-tipped interceptors would be better off working somewhere else.
Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Missile Defense Agency, assured Stevens at a hearing April 17 that nuclear weapons are not part of the current missile defense plan. Instead, the agency is testing ''hit-to-kill'' technology, meaning the interceptor destroys the target missile simply by smashing into it.
Critics fear the missile defense program will eventually go nuclear.
Lisbeth Gronlund, a physicist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said a nuclear-tipped interceptor would not have to directly hit an incoming missile to destroy it.
On the other hand, the massive electromagnetic pulse resulting from a nuclear explosion in space would destroy satellites and electronic circuits, and possibly disable the rest of the missile defense shield.
A nuclear explosion within the atmosphere, she said, would be even more harmful because of radioactive fallout.
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