Washington is planning to spend over $700 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next ten years. Some programs are necessary, some are questionable and some are simply turkeys gobbling up defense dollars.
With the failure of the Supercommittee almost certain, pressure to cut military spending will increase. These nuclear turkeys offer lawmakers a way to reduce spending without any harm to national security.
What We Need, What We Don't
We can all agree that we need to clean up the environmental and health damage done by decades of making nuclear weapons. About $96 billion is budgeted for this and related efforts over the next ten years. And we need to prevent other countries and terrorists from getting nuclear weapons. About $60 billion will be devoted to this work over the same period.
We can also agree that as long as we have nuclear weapons we don't want them going off when they are not supposed to. So, the government is planning to spend about $88 billion over the next ten years on programs to maintain these warheads, keeping them safe, secure and effective. An additional $125 billion will go to maintain the missiles, submarines and bombers that carry these weapons and begin to develop a new generation of these delivery vehicles.
But there are serious questions about whether all of these programs are necessary. Do we need to keep almost 5000 warheads in the active stockpile? Do we need to replicate the entire existing fleet of missiles, planes and subs for another 50 years, as the Pentagon now proposes? Why have the cost estimates for these programs increased by 25 percent in just the past year? Do we need to spend an additional $100 billion on anti-missile interceptors of unproven value?
Buried in this $700 billion pile are some programs we absolutely need and some programs that are such bad ideas they have no place in a national security budget. Just in time for Thanksgiving, here are my candidates for the top four nuclear turkeys:
Fuel to Nowhere
This is easily the biggest loser in the current budget. The Department of Energy is eager to build a new factory producing nuclear fuel that nobody wants to buy. It is a mix of uranium and plutonium that is dangerous, expensive and difficult to use. That's why US power companies don't want it for their nuclear reactors. Duke Energy, the last potential customer, pulled out in 2008.
Incredibly, DOE is still pushing this turky through Congress, with construction costs alone approaching $10 billion. Poor management has already pushed the cost of one part of the complex at Savannah River Site to $5 billion--five times the original estimate.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory can now make about 10-20 new bomb cores each year. But they want to build a brand new factory that can pump out bombs like sausages--up to 80 a year. It is not at all clear why. Bomb cores don't wear out very quickly. We currently have thousands expected to last 85 to 100 years.
Current cost estimates for the new bomb factory are close to $6 billion--10 times the original estimate. Delaying construction would save $100 million this year. Killing it could save $3-5 billion total.
The Navy's 14 nuclear-armed subs will easily carry us through the next two decades. But plans to buy 12 brand new subs are already underway. This is far more than we need. We could go down to 8 boats now, buy only 8 of the new ones, and with almost 200 warheads on each sub, still have more than enough hydrogen bombs based at sea to destroy most nations on earth. As Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) and 64 of this colleague wrote the Supercommittee, "America no longer needs, and cannot afford, this massive firepower." Delaying this program and getting smarter about how we deploy our submarines could save a total of $123 billion.
Lazy Circles in the Sky
We now have long-range bombers that can reliably carry nuclear payloads well past 2030. But the Air Force is already proposing a brand new bomber. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) wants to delay this plane plan, saving almost $4 billion in research and development.
He is in good company. The Office of Management and Budget says "current aircraft will be able to meet the threats expected in the foreseeable future" and that we need more time to "develop a better understanding of the requirement and to develop the technologies most suitable for a long-range bomber." Canceling this plan altogether would save at least $50 billion in procurement costs.
Some choices are hard. These are not. Killing these four turkeys will go a long way towards trimming the fat in the nuclear budget menu.