12/02/2011 03:37 pm ET | Updated Feb 01, 2012

Taxpayers Left in the Dark When It Comes to Nuclear Weapons Spending


The U.S. government has never been fully open about the cost of its nuclear weapons programs. This fact has sparked a debate over how to best calculate the financial burden nuclear weapons place on taxpayers. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler wrote this week that the estimate of $700 billion over ten years put forth by the Ploughshares Fund (a nuclear policy foundation that is one of POGO's funders) has gained a lot of traction, has been disputed by the Obama administration as being too high.

In response, Ploughshares defended its number but pointed out that "There is no official number that tells American citizens how much our government is spending on nuclear weapons. In fact, we are not even precisely sure how many nuclear weapons we have."

But what wasn't fully acknowledged in WaPo's analysis is that the Obama administration's $200 billion estimate--a rough number the Department of Defense (DoD) gave to Congress earlier this month--is far too low.

The nuclear weapons budget is divided between the DoD and the Department of Energy (DOE), accounting for about 7 percent and 67 percent, respectively, of each department's budget. But it's unclear if the administration is counting everything it should be counting when it comes to nuclear programs. As Stephen I. Schwartz, co-author of a 2009 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report on nuclear spending, told WaPo, the administration's current estimate is likely leaving out some important costs:

"It's a little like saying it costs me $1,000 a year to operate my car, except that I am not counting the cost of insurance, repairs, registration, taxes, etc.," Schwartz said. "The actual cost is higher, maybe even much higher. But unless the folks at DOD can provide us with a breakout of the costs for each system, it's impossible to say what's included and what's not."

The administration's estimate does not appear to include the lifecycle costs of projects, which are often far greater than initial construction costs. And the DoD is known for projects with high maintenance costs. For example, the DoD's F-35 Joint Strike Fighters will cost $382 billion to acquire, but operating costs for the life of the program will total a staggering $1 trillion.

The Washington Post notes that DOE's nuclear budget--currently $88 billion over ten years--is readily available to the public, and the real debate is over DoD's nuclear budget. However, it's worth pointing out that even the DOE number isn't very credible, as the agency has a history of exceeding its nuclear budget--and not by just a little. For instance, the high estimate for the cost of its proposed Uranium Processing Facility has increased from $1.1 billion in 2004 to $6.5 billion earlier this year--a sixfold increase.

Furthermore, the administration is not including the billions of dollars in cleanup and health costs created by the ongoing life-extension of nuclear warheads and production of nuclear delivery systems in its nuclear budget estimates.

Both the DOE's nuclear projects and several DoD programs have long been on the Government Accountability Office's (GAO) "high risk" list. The GAO names DoD's financial management as an area that needs great improvement and has found that "Defense acquisition programs usually take longer, cost more, and deliver fewer quantities and capabilities than DOD originally planned." And some of DOE's biggest projects in recent years have seen skyrocketing cost estimates, accounting for billions of additional dollars to be spent. The GAO also cited such problems as project schedules "not linked to technical or budget realities," and cases where "financing decisions were not as fully informed or as transparent as they could have been."

Both the DOE and the DoD need a dose of realism in their budget estimates, which could help avoid such vast discrepancies as we're seeing between the overall nuclear budget estimates of the administration and of Ploughshares.

So, how much does the U.S. spend on nuclear weapons? The only way to know for sure--and the only way for Congress to make informed decisions about funding--is for the administration to be more transparent about its nuclear spending, and to make a complete, detailed budget available to the public that includes operations, tactical nukes and other costs borne by the taxpayer. We also need a GAO audit of that budget, because right now, the one thing we do know is that we do not know enough.

Mia Steinle is a POGO investigator. Danielle Brian is POGO's executive director.