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"Forget the Rest" blog


For immediate release January 8, 2014

New study of nuclear deterrent costs: current plans to cost $1 trillion over 30 years, therefore impossible

New Mexico policy group: new study is correct; conclusions widely understood already in government; new study’s scope does not include other serious problems; conservatism of study’s basic conclusions underscored

Contact: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200 office and 505-577-8563 cell

Albuquerque – Today the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, CA released an important integrated summary of nuclear weapons costs, concluding that official government estimates of these costs total roughly $1 trillion over 30 years, exclusive of “legacy” costs for dismantlement and environmental cleanup and exclusive of hard-to-quantify retirement costs for workers and veterans, including pensions and health care.  Any cost overruns, beyond current published government estimates, would drive costs even higher. 

The study was prepared by Jon Wolfsthal, Jeffrey Lewis, and Marc Quint. 

Current administration plans call for replacing all nuclear weapons delivery systems and warheads over a 30-year period with new or upgraded versions, which is why the authors chose that timeframe. 

The authors’ sole recommendation is for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the Department of Defense (DoD), and the Department of Energy (DOE) to jointly prepare an annual nuclear deterrence budget.  To our knowledge no such budget has ever been prepared.[1]

The study provides no detail for its 30-year estimate of costs in the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), namely $350 billion (B).  We concur with that interpretation, given NNSA’s own implicit estimate of $275 B for 25 years, to which must be added a $10 B construction project that was omitted and approximately $50 B more for extending the plan’s monotonically-rising expenses for another 5 years, plus cost overruns for Life Extension Programs (LEPs), which experience shows is necessary. 

Prepared independently, this new study concurs with and complements last month’s important Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study compiling nuclear weapons costs over the next 10 years (“Projected Costs of U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2014 to 2023,” CBO, 12/19/13).  CBO concluded that nuclear weapons costs would total $355 billion (B) over the coming decade (2014-2023), fully anticipating today’s “$1 trillion” 30-year estimate.  By 2023, currently-planned modernization programs would still be ramping up, and annual modernization expenses during the remainder of the 2020s would be about four times the 2014 amount or about $15 B per year, in addition to sustainment and operations.  The CBO study was summarized in this Reuters article.

Study Group director Greg Mello: “Today’s important study by these experienced analysts should shock members of Congress, the Administration, and the American people. 

“In our experience, the authors are quite correct in their conclusion that disparate actors throughout the nuclear weapons establishment are independently making commitments and decisions without any real idea of what these decision imply for other budget lines, and for the out-years. 

“The authors will not shock the administration’s staff, or congressional committee staff, however.  Today’s nuclear weapons modernization plan is widely discounted in government, especially NNSA’s part.  No one knows what actually will happen, but many parties have expressed to us their confidence that the present plan will not succeed and will be abandoned.  Some components are already being sacrificed to pay for others. 

“What today’s study does not discuss are the many other ways, beyond cost, in which present plans are unrealistic.  To be conservative, and because it is based on government estimates, this study assumes these huge programs will be well-managed.  In DoD, some programs are well-managed.  But in NNSA they seldom are.  Programs that are poorly-planned and poorly-managed, and which stay that way (as NNSA’s programs have), cannot be rescued just by adding more money.  NNSA’s warhead business has tremendous structural weaknesses that will doom any attempt to simultaneously produce multiple new warheads, for example. 

“In 2010 it was clear that the privatized U.S. nuclear weapons establishment, through its own grandiosity and greed, was fully vesting the U.S. in nuclear disarmament.  I gave a talk in May of that year to allied organizations in New York on just that theme.  This continues to be the case, and the authors of today’s study are beginning to say so as well.  As we said in December (Bulletin 182),

…we can be confident the U.S. will not complete its current three-decade modernization plan for nuclear weapons, a plan that with sustainment and operations included might well cost (extrapolating from these CBO results) $1 trillion, even if it were well-managed and otherwise feasible.  It is however not well-managed and there are no signs it will ever be.  Neither is it feasible, as we have often said (e.g. here, here, and here), even if it were desirable.

“What the authors of today’s report did not say is that if we fail to head off this impending trillion-dollar failure we will also fail to address our looming climate, energy, and economic problems.  There won’t be enough real capital, and our attention will be in the wrong place.  That is the real but unstated meaning of today’s report, with its “trillion-dollar” sticker price.  A trillion dollars well-spent would be a good thing.  But we can’t afford to waste such a sum on absurd doomsday weapons, and frankly neither can we afford to imagine that any security whatever will accrue from these weapons.  They're a tar-baby, not a treasure.  We need to get real – fast.  Our real national security threats are coming from a very different quarter, and our present ‘national security’ establishment, driven as it is by defense contractor dollars, is almost totally oblivious to those dangers.” 


[1] Mr. Wolfsthal was the senior advisor for nuclear security to Vice President Biden in 2010 when a partial summary of these plans and costs was prepared, covering a 10-year period only (“Update to the National Defense Authorization Act of FY2010 Section 1251 Report, New START Treaty Framework and Nuclear Force Structure Plans," Nov 2010.)  This program and the costs outlined in this document were prepared in the context of V.P. Biden’s negotiations with Republican senators prior to the December 2010 vote to ratify the New START treaty.  No subsequent (or more complete) administration-wide nuclear weapons cost study has been done, either classified or unclassified.  See however the important CBO study mentioned in the text above.

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