What Nuclear Weapons Cost Us – It’s the Right Time for a Debate

The debate over the extent to which the U.S. government is committing itself to spending vast sums of taxpayer dollars on nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade is in full force in Congress, inside the administration, and in the media.

An open, transparent debate is essential to ensuring that citizens and policymakers alike have the right information in their hands when deciding about our country’s future spending on both these weapons and their related programs. It’s understandable that there will be differences of opinion throughout this debate – one that’s been made more difficult due to a lack of transparency about what our government actually spends on nuclear weapons and related programs.

It is because of this lack of clear information that Ploughshares Fund is providing its third working paper estimate on what it will cost Americans to produce, build, maintain, and clean-up nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade. To our knowledge, this estimate is the only current comprehensive assessment that projects these costs for the next decade. It is based upon the best publicly available information.

Our conclusion continues to be that current plans for nuclear weapons and related programs over the next decade will cost the American taxpayer approximately $700 billion.

The state of the debate over these estimates

There is significant consensus between this estimate and others being discussed both on Capitol Hill and in the media. Specifically, there is a common view that the taxpayer will spend a combined $358 billion on nuclear incident management, nuclear threat reduction, missile defense, deferred environmental and health costs, and nuclear weapons activities.

These programs are included in our projection because, as the Congressional Budget Office has noted, they are part of the full cost accounting of nuclear weapons and therefore “…might reasonably be attributed” to nuclear force expenditures.

The debate on nuclear weapons spending has thus largely centered around the Department of Defense's estimate that it will spend $125 billion on nuclear forces over the next decade. A variety of experts have weighed in on this question. Our review of this commentary, the literature, and the actual budget submissions provided by the Pentagon have led us to conclude that the number will be significantly higher than official government estimates have indicated. Specifically, we estimate that spending for Major Force Program 1 and for overhead and support costs related to the nuclear forces, in addition to projected costs for the new submarine and bomber, will bring the estimated cost to the American taxpayer up from $125 billion to $287 billion.

Additionally, there are major expected additional costs for programs that are planned but not yet included in the government’s future budget projections. These programs, such as the procurement and deployment of missile defense systems in Europe and potential cost overruns at the Department of Energy and Department of Defense, could account for tens of billions of dollars of additional expenses.

Regardless of which estimate for nuclear forces one accepts, a full-cost accounting demands that the cost of nuclear weapons and their related programs be combined. This means that the generally accepted conservative parameters of the debate should be that the taxpayer will be spending, at a minimum, somewhere between $500 billion to $700 billion over the next decade on weapons systems geared towards the Cold War.

Bringing it all together

Having a debate over the numbers creates an opportunity to ask important questions about our country’s national security and fiscal policy.

For example, what does it really cost to protect Americans from terrorism, cyber attack, and nuclear threats from states such as North Korea and Pakistan? Should it cost that same amount as if the Cold War had never ended? Are there better places to invest these limited defense dollars? And in a time of soaring national debts, should we be asking the Chinese to lend us more money for outdated weapons?

Ultimately, this estimate provides both the public and American policymakers with an additional tool to debate the type of future they want for their country. We look forward to exploring these strategic security and financial questions in the days ahead as this issue makes its way into the public eye.