Monday, September 17, 2007



Money spent on nuclear weapons in the US from 1940 to 1996 "exceeded the combined total federal spending for education; training, employment, and social services; agriculture; natural resources and the environment; general science, space, and technology; community and regional development (including disaster relief); law enforcement; and energy production and regulation. On average, the United States has spent $98 billion a year on nuclear weapons. Where did all this money go?"

This crucial question was asked in a report on "The Hidden Costs of Our Nuclear Arsenal" by Stephen I. Schwartz, June 30, 1998.
Schwartz showed that from 1940 to 1996 the US spent nearly $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs. The government never tried to track all nuclear weapons costs either annually or over time and as a result records were "extremely spotty and in numerous instances non-existent".

The army discovered that nuclear weapons, far from being cost-efficient killing machines, were in fact immensely expensive. One nuclear weapon could kill or injure hundreds or thousands of troops at a time, so large numbers of reserve forces would be necessary to maintain the advantage. Large numbers of wounded would require an expanded medical corps.

From 1948 to 1996, the United States spent $165.5 billion manufacturing plutonium, highly-enriched uranium, tritium, and other materials necessary to make nuclear explosives. So much highly-enriched uranium was produced that the United States halted production in 1964 having achieved a huge surplus.

The Department of Energy proposed to spend at a least $4.5 billion a year on "stockpile stewardship" to maintain the nuclear stockpile for the future. This would be more than was spent on average over the entire Cold War (1948-1991), $3.6 billion, when hundreds to thousands of new warheads were being built annually and nuclear testing was common.

From 1945 the United States conducted more nuclear tests than all other nuclear powers combined. A great deal of uncertainty remains about how many weapons the USSR actually produced. The arsenals of Great Britain, France and China are only a fraction of the superpowers' arsenals.

The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima exploded with a force of 15,000 tons of TNT or 15 kilotons. In 1960 the US had the equivalent of nearly 1.4 million Hiroshima-sized bombs. In 1998 the US had the equivalent of 120,000 to 130,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs.

In the spring of 1958, after the Army proposed deploying the Nike Zeus missile to shoot down incoming Soviet warheads, then-Secretary of Defense Neil McElroy said, "We should not spend hundreds of millions on production of this weapon pending general confirmatory indications that we know what we are doing."

This warning still resonates today, as proposed defensive systems fail test after test.

The large, daunting "cleanup" program is because so little money was spent on this in the past. Since government placed production of nuclear weapons and weapons materials ahead of everything else, the US faces a bill of as much as several hundred billion dollars for a program stretching to 2070 and beyond to rectify past wrongs.
Most of the money in the "cleanup" budget goes toward managing existing wastes. The cost of cleaning up nuclear weapons facilities will come close to or equal the cost of producing the weapons in the first place.

The strict secrecy surrounding these programs increases the potential for officials to place production first, cut corners, look only at short-term gains and ignore real and dangerous long-term costs to the environment, and public health.

In 1998, the US was spending $35 billion to operate and maintain its nuclear force, address the legacies of the Cold War - nuclear waste "cleanup" and victims of radiation exposure from nuclear weapons - and enact and enforce arms control agreements and try to develop missile defenses.

When Admiral Arleigh Burke, Chief of Naval Operations, stated that the equivalent of 720 warheads on Polaris submarines would be enough to deter the Soviet Union, the United States already had almost six times as many deployed.

When retired Army Chief of Staff General Maxwell Taylor wrote that "a few hundred missiles" would satisfy deterrence, the United States already had 7,000 strategic nuclear weapons.

And when Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara argued that within a few years the equivalent of 400 megatons would be enough to achieve destruction and hence deterrence, the U.S. stockpile had almost 17,000 megatons.

There has always been a tremendous gap between what informed military and civilian leaders thought necessary for deterrence and what was actually deployed.

Hundreds of billions of dollars were expended on programs which contributed little or nothing to deterrence, diverted critical resources and effort away from those that did or created long-term costs that exceeded their benefits.

The costs of nuclear weapons, have never been fully understood nor compiled by the government. Congress has only taken action to terminate nuclear weapons programs a handful of times and has never held a hearing, debate or vote on the cost, scale, pace or implications of the overall program even though the potential for waste, fraud and abuse is equal to that for entitlement programs, as indicated by the approximately equal share of spending for each.
With nuclear weapons still consuming a sizable percentage of the military budget, it is vital to understand how the figures in the plan were derived.

The annual congressional debate usually focuses on the minute details of a few programs at a the expense of the overall effort those programs are supposed to support. This approach can be likened to building a house by carefully examining the cost of only a few of the obvious elements, largely ignoring the rest, and rarely pausing to consider what the house will actually cost or look like, or if it will even meet one's needs.

The time has come to consider carefully the costs and consequences to the United States, and the world, of producing tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and basing national security on the threat of nuclear annihilation.

We cannot rectify our mistakes or build on our achievements if such a crucial part of our nuclear history remains incomplete. Neither can we hope to prevent other countries from acquiring nuclear weapons if we do not fully comprehend the forces that have driven our own program and affect it still.

Given the enormous sums expended and the substantial risks incurred, we owe it to ourselves and future generations to seek answers to these questions, to fill the gaps in the atomic ledger.

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