10/10/2012 10:15 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

The Half-Trillion Dollar Nuclear Budget

The nuclear arsenal might seem like an artifact of Cold War strategy, but the U.S. is spending money on it like the Wall never fell. If nothing changes, in fact, the U.S. is on track to spend approximately $640 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next ten years. This upward trend stands in contrast to the advice of national security experts who say we can cut defense budgets by getting rid of last century's weapons.

Some of these funds go to responsible programs, like continued environmental clean-up of old nuclear weapons sites, or efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation. But much of the spending sustains an unnecessarily large nuclear arsenal at unacceptable costs.

For example, projected spending includes funds for a $10 billion warhead program -- with each bomb costing more than its weight in solid gold. Until recently, DOE had planned to build a $6 billion plutonium lab for the nuclear complex. In what would have been one of the largest construction projects in New Mexico history, the facility would have provided unneeded new capacity to expand our production of bomb cores. The U.S. is also getting ready to replace its entire nuclear-armed submarine fleet, costing more than $350 billion over the lifetime of the new subs.

These programs exceed our security needs. Nuclear weapons are becoming increasingly irrelevant for national security. Yet, instead of scaling back the excessively large arsenal, military planners are putting in place programs to "modernize it," essentially locking the United States into several decades of nuclear build-up. The costs could be staggering. A recent calculation by security foundation Ploughshares Fund finds that the U.S. could spend approximately $640 billion on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade.

The U.S. currently has 5,000 operational nuclear warheads, with 3,000 more awaiting dismantlement. Top experts like Gen. James Cartwright agree we can provide for our security with less than 1,000 total. As former Secretary of State Colin Powell said:

We have every incentive to reduce the number [of nuclear weapons]. These are expensive. They take away from soldier pay. They take away from [operations and maintenance]. They take away from lots of things. There is no incentive to keep more than you believe you need for the security of the Nation.

The opportunity costs of nuclear weapons grow more serious as the defense budget tightens. Washington is scrambling for ways to reduce defense spending as part of a balanced deficit reduction package. Nuclear weapons programs are now competing for funds with more modern programs that the military needs to address this century's threats. It would be irresponsible to sell the military short on the tools it needs for the future in order to double up on weapons to fight the Cold War.

It does not have to be that way. Instead, nuclear weapons should be the first place to cut. The arsenal is too big already; replacing it will burden defense budgets and take resources away from a true 21st century national security strategy.

The other option is to go ahead with current nuclear plans and leave behind two monuments for future generations: a bloated nuclear arsenal and a harrowing national debt.