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US weighs its role in weapons development

Debate mounts on Capitol Hill over whether to modernize the US stockpile of nuclear warheads.

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Are some US nuclear weapons so old and finicky they need to be rebuilt into simpler, sturdier bombs?

Should scientists at the nation's nuclear labs study new kinds of weapons specifically intended to frighten rogue dictators?

Right now the US is observing a moratorium on nuclear tests. Should it spend a little cash and improve the readiness level of the Nevada Nuclear Test Site - just in case?

As Washington worries about possible proliferation in Iran and North Korea, the administration and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are involved in concerted debate about what actions - if any - are needed to maintain and modernize the nuclear stockpile of the US.

On one level, the outcome of this debate could have a profound effect on the nature of the nation's nuclear deterrent. On another level, it could also influence the attitudes of other nations toward US nonproliferation efforts. This could be seen as early as next month, when a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference opens at the UN in New York.

"Washington still maintains a large nuclear arsenal designed for the cold war, and it fails to take into account the current impact of its nuclear policies on those of other governments," writes Clinton-era Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch in a recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.

Currently the US maintains a stockpile of around 5,000 active nuclear warheads, according to estimates from experts outside government.

Under the terms of the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty struck by President Bush and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin two years ago, that figure is supposed to be reduced to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed weapons by 2012.

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