Costs and Conflicts of a Nuclear Weapons Program
by Molly Cernicek and Cheryl Rofer
We have come a long way from the $20 billion price tag (in 1996 dollars) it cost to conceive and build a nuclear weapons program between 1940-45 within the Manhattan Project.
In 1998, Stephen I. Schwartz, based on findings from the Brookings Institution’s U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study, estimated the total cost of developing and maintaining a nuclear weapons capability in the United States between 1940 and 1996 was at least $5.5 trillion. This estimate included research, developing, testing, deployment, nuclear command and control, nuclear intelligence, waste management, environmental remediation, nuclear arms control agreements, and congressional oversight of nuclear programs. Averaged over 56 years, the $980 million per year included the construction of over 70,000 weapons encompassing 65 models at the height of the Cold War. By mid-2006, more than 60,000 of these weapons had been dissembled. (Cost numbers in 1996 dollars from Brookings)
In 1998, the Brookings Institution study estimated that $35.1 billion covered all US nuclear weapons and related programs. Ten years later, Schwartz and colleagues estimated that the American government spent $52.4 billion in fiscal year 2008 to steward approximately 10,000 nuclear weapons and related programs. This number has continued to increase each year since. While it might seem that if we reduce the numbers of nuclear warheads, the cost of manufacturing and military infrastructure essential to allow increased weapons reductions would be much less than that required when maintaining constant or growing production. This is not the trend.
The aging nuclear weapons complex needs substantial investment to create modern manufacturing infrastructure. As the United States reduces nuclear weapons, the ability to manufacture modern nuclear weapons at very short notice will be required.
The cost to steward each nuclear weapon and to keep our knowledge base up to date goes up as our weapons numbers decrease. Part of this increase goes to nonproliferation programs. Yet there is an unsettling “what comes first – the nuclear weapon or the nuclear threat” mentality taking hold, a form of supply and demand cycle.
Nonproliferation programs assess the threats to nuclear proliferation and recommend solutions. A growing conflict is that the same organizations and employees are involved in the identification and solution of global threats, the perceived causes of nuclear proliferation, and new nuclear weapon designs. This combination capitalizes on core competencies and expertise, but possible conflicts of interest must be managed.
As budgets keep rising for nuclear weapons programs, infrastructure, and nonproliferation programs under the same private contractors, the trend is strong on job and project creation, but short on innovative technologies and solutions to reduce not just the global nuclear stockpiles and programs, but to lower the cost of maintaining the US capability.