The Unfathomable Cost of the United States Nuclear Program

02/29/2012 02:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 30, 2012
  • William Rose Connect2Mason Opinion Editor, Political Columnist, and Global Zero Student Leader at George Mason University

20,500 -- that is the number of nuclear weapons that exist on earth today, 11,000 owned by Russia, 8,500 owned by the United States and distantly behind is France with an arsenal of 300, followed by China, Britain, Pakistan, Israel, India, and North Korea, all nine of which make up a nuclear club that boasts the most powerful, most precarious, and most portentous weapons in all of history. Enough of these nuclear warheads are standing on launch-ready alert prepared to kill approximately 100 million Americans and Russians within a timeframe of 30 minutes. As President John F. Kennedy asserted:

"Every man, woman, and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us."

It was an accident in 1983 when a NATO test of nuclear-release procedures caused the USSR to raise its threat level, which could have potentially led to a third world war. It was a miscalculation in 1979 when a microchip malfunctioned at the North American Aerospace Defense Command and initiated the hectic preparations to return fire in response to a perceived Soviet threat. And if the accidental flight of a nuclear weapon equivalent in strength to ten of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima over the United States in 2007 did not cause madness, maybe people would consider the launching of a missile northward to study the northern lights, misinterpreted by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation as an attack on Moscow, madness. Whatever misfires you consider to fit the three categories described by JFK, it's obvious that we can't afford miscalculations, accidents, and mistakes when dealing with arms capable of accidentally wiping out American cities.

If you're not terrified by the statistics of military error (and trust me, there are plenty more close encounters to be found,) you should be in awe of the fact that world leaders will spend $1 trillion in the next ten years on nuclear weapons. There's no better time than now to remind congress of the facts concerning what we spend on these vehicles of destruction -- the United States has, according to the Brookings Institution, spent at least $8.15 trillion on nuclear weapons since their inception if accounting for inflation. $52 billion was spent on the nuclear program in 2008 according to The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and yet it seems the major concern of many congressmen is to do away with The Affordable Healthcare Act, things like clean energy, public safety, and most worryingly to myself as a student, educational funding.

I truly believe that many Americans simply aren't capable of comprehending the shortfalls in our budget. And the most frustrating part, for me, is that we make cuts of a few billion, rejoice, and pretend that trillions of dollars in cuts shouldn't be made. "Hands off of the Department of Defense and Social Security" is something we frequently hear from politicians on both sides of the isle but, in all reality, that's where an unreasonable amount of our money is being spent. Militarily, we are the most powerful country in the world. We personally possess the nuclear power to destroy the world 50 times over; so here's the real question: how many times are we going to need to destroy the world?

The defunding of one nuclear weapon sends 400 aspiring children to college who otherwise couldn't afford higher education. Defunding one nuclear weapon allocates the funds to put 200 people back to work in the states. Defunding one nuclear weapon provides healthcare for 36,000 low-income Americans struggling to feed their family. The money spent on just three nuclear weapons could theoretically save the lives of 36,000 people, send 400 of their children to college, and employ 200 of them upon graduation. The money spent on all nuclear weapons in the United States could, theoretically, change the dynamics of everything.

A nuclear explosion in central Washington, D.C. would release radiation of such scope that it would destroy all of the accompanying metro area -- millions would die from something as simple as a faulty Russian computer chip. So the real question is, do we stand in the face of everything reasonable -- against the suggestions of John F. Kennedy, against the suggestions of Ronald Reagan at the Reykjavik Summit, against our own odds, and keep these devastating warheads aimed at countries we call our allies, or do we take action and demand healthcare, education, jobs, public safety, and energy be protected from the vice of ignorant public policy? To quote President Ronald Reagan, "would it not be better to do away with them entirely?"

Would it not be better to prevent miscalculations, accidents, and madness by diffusing the threat entirely? In a multi-polar world where the neither the Soviet Union nor the United States is the obvious ideological leader, deterrence is a reasonable argument; when we live in world where the possession of nuclear weapons no longer prevents their use, but increases their chance of being used -- where the arsenals are not even close to proportional and the stakes (and number of armed states) are much higher, it becomes clear that it's in everyone's best interest to rid the world of these taboos. As Joseph Cirincione, President of The Ploughshares Fund quipped, there are 183 countries without nuclear weapons -- many of these countries could have them, they've chosen not to. How's that for a precedent?