Friday, December 02, 2011

How Much Do Nuclear Weapons Cost?

When I was a student, I worked in a laboratory that separated plant pigments, like chlorophyll, from algae that had been grown in heavy water, so the hydrogens in those pigments had been substituted by deuterium. The amounts of pigment were small and carefully handled. One slow afternoon, some of us tried to calculate what they were worth, sitting green and yellow in their shiny glass vacuum ampoules. The growing had required heavy water, nutrients, and energy to keep the vats warm. Technicians had to monitor the growing and, at the right time, separate and dry the algae. Then senior scientists had prepared the algae and the chromatographic columns (four inches by two feet, filled with confectioners' sugar tamped just so) and did the separation, which entailed proper application of an algae solution to the columns, followed by careful excavation of the pigmented regions of the column with surgical-like tools and further preparation, winding up with those ampoules. Hours of expensive people time.

Nuclear weapons are further along in development than our plant pigment separations were, but not by a lot. Their production process is more like that of an exclusive car, the handwork that goes into, say, a Bugatti. Expensive components and hours of expensive people time. And then there are the delivery vehicles, whose production is more like, say, a Mercedes-Benz.

But if you want to account for what nuclear weapons have cost the country since they were invented during World War II, you would have to include the damage to the environment and people's health from poor judgements about worker conditions and waste disposal, the work that has gone into development of treaties to control them, and today's monitoring of other nations that hold them or may be trying to get them.

Stephen Schwartz, most recently with Deepti Choubey, has tried to reckon up that full cost. That number is useful for a great many things, among them ways to consider what nuclear weapons might cost us in the future and how we might deal with those costs.

During the Super Committee deliberations, an argument was made that the nuclear weapons budget for the next ten years could be cut by $200 billion dollars. This argument came mainly from organizations hoping to phase out nuclear weapons altogether, and was based on a total cost of nuclear weapons for the next decade of $700 billion dollars. That estimate came from the Ploughshares Foundation and was based on Schwartz and Choubey's numbers.

During the last Republican debate, an ad was aired that made use of that $700 billion figure. Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post's "Fact Checker" columnist looked into it and found some problems. I had looked into the Ploughshares numbers at about the time they came out and also had some questions (here, here, and here).

I was writing in the context of the Super Committee and the suggestion that $200 billion be cut from the "nuclear weapons budget." My concern was that taking such a broad approach would result in funds being cut from such things as environmental cleanup, worker compensation, and treaty talks, given the Republican love of weapons.

The past day or two, since Kessler's piece was published, has seen an uproar in the Twitter world over who's right. That's an unfortunate emphasis, since it seems to me that the problem is that Schwartz and Choubey are doing one thing, and Ploughshares another.

Schwartz and Choubey are trying to find what the cost of nuclear weapons has been. The paper I linked and other estimates that Schwartz has done are generally accepted as the most reliable. The purpose of the Ploughshares document is political, to argue for reductions in nuclear weapons via the Super Committee. With the demise of the Super Committee, that political purpose continues. So Ploughshares has vehemently defended its numbers, particularly that bottom-line $700 billion.

Schwartz has made the point again and again that we need to know what costs go into the nuclear weapons budget. The federal budget contains no such line item; the costs are largely, but not exclusively, in the Departments of Energy and Defense. Any such accounting necessarily makes arbitrary judgements as to where to draw the lines. The common meaning of "nuclear weapons budget," it seems to me, includes the manufacture and maintenance of the weapons themselves and their delivery vehicles. Schwartz's estimate contains many other costs, which makes that estimate very useful in understanding all the costs of nuclear weapons.

Some commentary has welcomed "a discussion of nuclear weapons costs," but that's not what I saw yesterday on Twitter. That came down closer to "I'm right, you're wrong" and stayed at that bottom-line number.

Extrapolating those numbers into the future should include assessments of the various categories individually, not just a bottom-line number. The question of what parts of the program are desirable to continue, like treaty development for further control of those weapons, is important. That is the discussion we need to have, and it was completely absent this week.

Update: Here are some specific suggestions for saving $45 billion from the nuclear weapons budget. Kudos to the Arms Control Association for looking beyond Twitter.

Cross-posted at Nuclear Diner.