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The High Price of Nukes: Weapons We Don't Need at a Cost We Can't Afford

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Your government is slated to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to purchase, maintain and operate our massive nuclear arsenal. The costs include everything from new nuclear bombers, submarines and bomb factories to the huge but unknown costs of deploying and maintaining thousands of nuclear weapons.

It's an outrage that we are spending this kind of money on these outmoded and unnecessary systems at a time when deficit reduction is the order of the day. It is equally outrageous that our government will not tell us exactly how much we're spending on them -- and may not even be keeping track.

This issue received increased attention this week when the Washington Post did a critique of the only existing estimate of the full costs of our nuclear arsenal over the next decade, produced by the Ploughshares Fund. In a working paper on the subject,, Ploughshares put the figure at $700 billion over ten years, for everything from building and maintaining the arsenal to paying for related costs such as environmental clean up and missile defense. The Pentagon has put forward a figure of $214 billion over ten years, championed by, among others, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), a staunch advocate of throwing more money at our already vast nuclear enterprise. Even as an estimate of the narrowest possible definition of nuclear weapons costs, the Pentagon's figure is far too low, since it excludes, among other things, the costs of maintaining and operating the arsenal -- no small oversight! Kingston Reif does a good job of debunking this figure here, on the "Nukes of Hazard" blog of the Council on Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

While Glenn Kessler of the Post took issue with some aspects of the Ploughshares methodology -- which is explained here -- the real issue is that we are slated to spend far too much on things we don't need. The Arms Control Association has produced a comprehensive fact sheet that details spending on specific aspects of the arsenal. The expenditures include $347 billion in the coming decades to purchase and operate a dozen new ballistic missile firing submarines; over $50 billion for a hundred new nuclear bombers; and billions more for factories designed to make uranium and plutonium components for nuclear warheads. As the Project on Government Oversight has noted in its own analysis of the problem, these figures are undoubtedly low, given, for example, the history of massive cost overruns in the nuclear weapons complex, which is administered by the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA).

The Alliance for Nuclear Accountability has done a report on current NNSA projects -- from a multi-billion dollar factory to turn plutonium generated by weapons programs into fuel for nuclear reactors (known as the "MOX," or mixed-oxide plant) to "life extension programs" for nuclear warheads. It should be duly noted that only in the bizarre universe of the nuclear weapons complex could the words "life extension" and "nuclear warheads" appear in the same sentence.

At the most fundamental level, we have to ask why -- 20 years after the end of the Cold War -- our government is still primed to spend such a huge chunk of our tax dollars on systems for delivering and maintaining nuclear weapons. As President Obama has rightly suggested -- in line with proposals made by President Ronald Reagan -- we should be moving on a path towards eliminating all nuclear weapons. Spending hundreds of billions to build, modernize and maintain our nuclear arsenal is in direct contradiction of this goal. Even for those who argue that it is impractical or inadvisable to get rid of all of our nukes, a study by three Air Force strategists demonstrates that for the only conceivable purpose for nuclear weapons -- to keep another country from using them against us or our allies -- we would need only 311 nuclear warheads, not the thousands we currently possess.

Additionally, we need to press for more transparency and accountability over how our tax dollars are being spent on this grim enterprise. Taxpayers for Common Sense has underscored one of the key reasons that this is the case: "Whether or not you think we need nuclear weapons, you do need to know how much they cost. Resources are always part of strategy, and you can't figure out your strategy without knowing how much you spend and where. It's hard to ride herd over any government function if you don't really know what you spend on it."

And as Stephen Schwartz, the author of an authoritative 2009 report on the costs of U.S. nuclear weapons issued by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has noted, "The fundamental point--which tends to get lost in the rather esoteric discussion of how this estimate was derived--is that more than 69 years after the creation of the Manhattan Project, no one in the government knows what the actual number is because there is not and has never been a line item for nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs in the federal budget . . . rather than arguing over whose estimate is the most accurate, we should be demanding that before the substantial Department of Defense and Department of Energy modernization programs get fully underway, the government prepare a comprehensive, unclassified, annual accounting of all expenditures associated with nuclear weapons, so that we can finally have an honest and informed debate about their actual costs and benefits."