From the Hill


From the Hill

House bucks Bush, votes to relax stem cell restrictions

Bucking the opposition of President Bush, the House of Representatives in May passed the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act (H.R. 810), which would relax federal restrictions on embryonic stem cell research by allowing federal researchers to use newly created stem cell lines rather than just those created before the administration’s policy was announced on August 9, 2001.

The bill, championed by Representatives Mike Castle (R-Del.) and Diana DeGette (D-Calif.), comes in the wake of complaints by researchers that fewer than two dozen cell lines are currently available and that many of those are contaminated with animal cultures. By allowing access to new uncontaminated lines derived from excess embryos from in vitro fertilization clinics, the bill aims to advance research into potential therapies for a host of diseases.

The 238-194 vote, supported by 50 Republicans, fell well short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to overturn a presidential veto. In the Senate, a companion bill has been introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Ut.) and Tom Harkin (D-Ia.). Sen. Sam Brown-back (R-Kan.) has threatened to filibuster the bill if it reaches the floor.

The debate on the House floor divided Republican and Democrats alike over the scientific promise of stem cell research and the ethical dilemma of an area of research that some view as morally abhorrent. Proponents of embryonic stem cell research argued that more human embryos are created than are needed during the course of an in vitro fertility treatment and that the excess embryos are often simply discarded. Rep. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.), who is partly paralyzed, stated, “What could be more life-affirming than using what would otherwise be discarded to save, extend, and improve lives?”

Opponents objected to this argument, however, saying that such research would still condone the destruction of embryos. They argued that research on stem cells obtained from adults is just as promising and renders embryonic stem cell research unnecessary. Most scientists, however, dispute this claim. Although adult stem cells have potential, scientists say, they also have severe limitations and drawbacks.

Bush plan for earth-penetrating nuclear weapon hits roadblock

Despite a continuing strong push from the Bush administration, the House of Representatives is providing a cool reception for a program to study earth-penetrating nuclear weapons. The recently approved House fiscal year (FY) 2006 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill does not include money for the administration’s Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP), also known as an earth “bunker buster,” which is designed to put at risk deeply buried targets beyond the range of conventional weapons. In addition, the House-passed version of the FY 2006 Defense Authorization bill removed the nuclear component from a study of earth-penetrating weapons and shifted the proposed work to the Department of Defense (DOD) from the Department of Energy.

Meanwhile, a recent National Research Council report concluded that earth-penetrating nuclear weapons cannot penetrate to the depths required to contain all of the effects of a nuclear explosion. According to the report, “For attacks near or in densely populated urban areas using nuclear earth-penetrator weapon on hard and deeply buried targets (HDBTs), the number of casualties can range from thousands to more than a million, depending primarily on weapon yield. For attacks on HDBTs in remote, lightly populated areas, casualties can range from as few as hundreds at low weapon yields to hundreds of thousands at high yields and with unfavorable winds.”

Although the Senate has not yet taken action this year, the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces addressed the issue in the context on the country’s overall nuclear capability during an April hearing. Only administration officials were invited. Gen. James E. Cartwright, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command (StratCom) for the Marine Corps, framed today’s nuclear weapon programs in the context of a broad reconfiguration of DOD. He said that in order to respond to post-Cold War threats, a realignment of various combat commands must take place, with emphasis on a quick, agile, and precise response to worldwide threats. He noted that whereas most of DOD’s commands focus on threats in specific regions, StratCom’s role is to supply worldwide “enablers” to these localized commands, including missile defense, sensors, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities. Nuclear weapons are another such enabler, and StratCom is working to update the U.S. nuclear arsenal to reflect today’s threats.

Cartwright testified that a leading force in shaping U.S. nuclear weapons policy is the Moscow Treaty, signed in 2001 by President Bush, which limits the U.S. nuclear arsenal to between1,700 and 2,200 warheads by the year 2012. A critical means for protecting the reliability of the arsenal and the sufficiency of the number of warheads is to sustain target precision to meet emerging needs. As it has argued in previous years, StratCom believes that hardened, underground bunkers are one area where conventional weapons are not useful, and thus, the RNEP program is being pursued.

Subcommittee Chairman Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) challenged the witnesses to refute claims that the RNEP study will disrupt the world’s nuclear balance. Ambassador Linton F. Brooks, administrator at the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, responded by discussing four classes into which the defense world is currently divided.

First, he argued, current nuclear powers will not be affected if the United States develops a new nuclear weapon. Second, aspiring nuclear states, such as North Korea or Iran, won’t be influenced either, because they already feel threatened by the sheer size of U.S. conventional forces. Third, terrorists are unlikely to be deterred regardless of our activities, so we should not worry about them. The final class, and the only one affected by RNEP development, Brooks argued, would be the non-nuclear states who help the United States uphold the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty through their cooperation. Brooks admits that these nations have reason to worry but contends the RNEP study alone won’t convince any of these nations to go nuclear.

Brooks’ arguments in favor of the RNEP study received no dissent from the two senators presiding over the subcommittee hearing. However, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the subcommittee noted that the RNEP would not move past its study phase without explicit consent from Congress.

Fraud allegations roil Yucca Mountain project

Nevada’s representatives in the House are using a report alleging fraud as a new means of scuttling the construction of a permanent repository site for high-level nuclear waste in their state. On April 5, Rep. John Porter (R-Nev.), chairman of the House Government Reform Subcommittee on the Federal Workforce and Agency Organization, convened a hearing to probe fraud allegations at the Yucca Mountain project. The charges stemmed from a March report by Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman that several U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) employees may have falsified documents relating to their work on the project.

At the hearing, House members from Nevada expressed outrage and called for a criminal investigation into the matter. The committee was particularly concerned with recently disclosed email messages that seemed to portray attempts by federal employees to circumvent quality assurance (QA) procedures. One USGS employee wrote in 1999, “In the end I keep track of 2 sets of files, the ones that will keep QA happy and the ones that were actually used.”

Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-NV) painted the allegations as a continuation of problems that have plagued the project to build a nuclear waste repository and urged members to consult the fault-finding 2004 Government Accountability Office report (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04460.pdf). Asserting that “Yucca Mountain is based on a lie,” Berkley said he believed that the project was finally “…collapsing before our very eyes.” She called for a complete halt to the Yucca Mountain project.

Rep. James Gibbons (R-Nev.) warned the Department of Energy (DOE) not to downplay the incident as “paperwork problems” or to continue in their mindset of “damage control.” Stating that Yucca Mountain was selected for “purely political reasons,” he compared the allegations to chief executive officers “cooking the books” for Enron and WorldCom. Just as no one would fly in an airplane that had not undergone quality assurance, he claimed, people in Nevada would refuse a waste site they perceived to be improperly screened.

Pointing out that Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States and that the Yucca Mountain site is no longer remote, Porter argued the project is based on “science fiction,” not “sound science.”

The two men assigned to the hot seat at the hearing were USGS Director Charles Groat and Ted Garrish, deputy director of DOE’s Yucca program. Whereas Groat deferred to a current Department of Interior investigation, Garrish assured the committee that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission would properly assess the matter once the formal license application for Yucca had been filed.

Dissatisfied with their answers, Gibbons demanded to know how plans for Yucca Mountain could continue without an assurance that the allegations would not undermine the whole project. Along with his colleagues, he suggested a thorough independent investigation.

B. John Garrick, chairman ofthe Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, the body charged with reviewing the scientific progress of Yucca Mountain, determined that it was too early to draw conclusions about the effects of the allegations on the overall project. But Nevada Attorney General Brian Sandoval reminded the committee that the unflattering emails would not have been released if not for Nevada’s incessant lawsuits. He called for further disclosure of information relating to the allegations.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who called the allegations a “lesson in what’s bad about the government,” offered a possible solution. He proposed legislation to store nuclear waste on site at U.S. nuclear facilities.

Senators clash over terrorist priorities

At a May 18, 2005, hearing of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, senators clashed over the potential terrorist threat of two loosely organized groups, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF), which have used violent acts and harassment as a means of advancing their agendas.

Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) noted that the activities of these groups, which are conducted by autonomous individuals or cells, have been designated the number one domestic terrorist threat by the FBI. That title was not so warmly embraced by Inhofe’s colleagues on the other side of the aisle, and the hearing grew heated at times.

Senators James Jeffords (I-Vt.), Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) joined in a statement for the record, objecting to designating ALF/ELF as terrorist groups. Lautenberg claimed that the acts committed were merely the product of “crazy” individuals. The senators argued that the acts should be placed in context, maintaining that hate crimes, right-wing militias, abortion-clinic bombers, and potential attacks against nuclear and chemical facilities should be given a higher priority by law enforcement officials.

John Lewis and Carson Carroll, deputy assistant directors of the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, respectively, disagreed. They testified that threats from right-wing militias and hate crimes are less serious than those posed by ALF/ELF in terms of coordination, planning, and geographic range. Further, ALF/ELF are sophisticated users of the Internet, conveying information, encouraging recruits, and posting pictures of the laboratories they have damaged on their Web site, constantly changing servers to avoid tracking by law enforcement.

Both witnesses said that the problem is getting worse, with Carroll testifying about the increasing use of explosives and incendiary devices, ranging from crudely made to sophisticated and electronically ignited. Furthermore, the violent rhetoric used by ALF/ELF and their supporters has also grown. Lewis cited a remark by one ALF supporter that if people who kill animals can be stopped only by violence, then it is morally justifiable.

David Skorton, president of the University of Iowa, provided a perspective on the impact that these activists have had. He testified that in a November 2004 attack at his university, 18 individuals claiming responsibility on behalf of ALF destroyed and poured acid on equipment and papers and released more than 300 animals. “Not only was research disrupted,” Skorton stated, “but the academic activities and careers of faculty, undergraduate and graduate students, and postdoctoral trainees were impaired, in some cases adding months to the conduct of federally funded, peer-reviewed research.”

Furthermore, the group posted the names, addresses, and phone numbers of faculty and their spouses, graduate students, and laboratory assistants on the Web. Calling these latter efforts “blatant intimidation,” Skorton reported that university-affiliated individuals are still being harassed and that the fears created have altered the environment on the campus.


“From the Hill” is prepared by the Center for Science, Technology, and Congress at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (www.aaas.org/spp) in Washington, D.C., and is based on articles from the center’s bulletin Science & Technology in Congress.