Assessing the Full Costs of Being a Nuclear State

From the Foundation's 1994 Annual Report


Nuclear weapons are not self-generating, but rather the product of deliberate human choice. For almost fifty years economic arguments have been used to encourage people to spend resources on nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons give "more bang for the buck," the claim goes. Remarkably, for decades this simple slogan was largely unexamined. Congress, journalists, and other watchdogs of the public interest rarely investigated just how costly the nuclear weapon enterprise was for the United States, and whether money was being spent efficiently.

By 1994, when the Cold War was clearly over and the United States and the world approached the fiftieth anniversary of the nuclear age, the question naturally arose: How much did it cost the United States to build, control, and maintain its nuclear arsenal? In asking this question the Foundation soon discovered that there was no answer. The U.S. government has never totaled its expenses related to nuclear weapons. Congress never asked for a full accounting. Records have been kept on how much particular missile systems or nuclear warheads cost to develop and produce, but such expenses only begin to cover the full range of costs borne by society. Nuclear weapons require large, complicated technical infrastructures to command and control them. Locating and programming targets in foreign countries and keeping outsiders from gaining knowledge about American systems consumes billions of dollars. The production and testing of nuclear weapons have created massive environmental and human health hazards which society pays for twice: first in the harm done to people and territory, second in the expense of containing and eventually cleaning up the damage. These and other costs have never been systematically identified, combined and totaled.

In 1994 the Foundation determined that greater effort should be devoted to assessing and publicizing the full costs of being a nuclear-weapon state. The public interest requires such accounting whether or not one believes that nuclear weapons are indispensable for national security, or that the United States had no choice but to engage in the Cold War nuclear arms race. Even if the end justifies the means, the public has a right to know how much the means cost.

More than money is at stake here. The way in which the designers and producers of nuclear weapons went about their business, largely free from oversight and accountability, may illuminate the ongoing character and interests of these institutions. Insight into the operations of nuclear weapons establishments could enable Americans and citizens of other societies to participate more judiciously in national security policy debates. In short, a careful audit of nuclear weapons establishments may engender the kind of accountability that leads to better decision-making.

To guide the Foundation's effort to assess the costs of being a nuclear-weapons state, some of the best private sector nuclear analysts in America were assembled for a project based at the Brookings Institution. This cooperative research effort made major progress in 1994 and will release its findings in two stages: first, a preliminary report on the 50th anniversary of the first nuclear explosion, the Trinity test of July 16, 1945; and second, a detailed volume in early 1996. These reports are intended to establish categories and benchmarks to guide subsequent official cost assessments. Only through official channels will it be possible to overcome the ongoing secrecy and cloudy accounting practices that prevent the public and current officials from knowing the full costs of America's nuclear arsenal. It is hoped that the Foundation-initiated effort will provide a model for analysts and journalists in other countries to build upon in furthering international debate over nuclear weapons.

Beyond the Brookings-based project, the Foundation seeks to identify and publicize previously hidden social, environmental and human health consequences of nuclear weapon production and testing. In this and other work, the Foundation has recognized that whistleblowers provide a valuable source of public information. Frequently, whistleblowers are met with harassment and intimidation by the powerful, often secretive institutions which have committed the violations unveiled by these individuals. These individuals therefore need legal and moral support which several Foundation grantees provide.
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