Assess the Full Costs of Being a Nuclear State

From the Foundation's 1995 Annual Report


Fifty years into the nuclear age, little attention has been paid to the actual costs of producing, deploying, commanding and controlling nuclear weapons. Some cost categories are obvious: the expense of producing the fissile materials used in weapons; designing, testing and producing warheads; designing, building and deploying delivery systems such as missiles, planes and submarines. Other categories are less obvious: the expense of building and operating targeting programs and command and control technologies; building and deploying reconnaissance satellites to locate and monitor enemy targets; ensuring security at U.S. nuclear facilities. Still other cost categories are only now emerging: the expense of decontaminating and cleaning up radioactive sites; compensating victims of radiation experiments; health care expenses of afflicted workers within the nuclear complex. A full assessment of these and other costs of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex was never undertaken by the U.S. government.

[Map of US Nuclear Weapons Facilities] In 1994 the Foundation initiated a major project based at the Brookings Institution to gather and assimilate data on the full cost of nuclear weapons to the American taxpayer. In 1995 the project issued preliminary results concluding that, from 1945 to 1995, the total cost of developing and maintaining the nuclear weapons complex has equaled at least $4 trillion. This preliminary report helped win the release of additional government data which will be incorporated into the project's final report in 1996. The report also elicited extensive press coverage across the United States and internationally. Within Washington, however, where all of these expenses had been authorized with often scandalously little debate, oversight or fiscal scrutiny, the official response was disinterested.

This collective insider shrug over the cost of nuclear weapons contrasted sharply with the passionate determination of Congress, the press and others to scrutinize all other areas of government spending for waste, fraud and abuse. At a time when the objectives and performance of virtually every other government program were being rigorously examined, little interest was shown in subjecting the hundreds of programs related to nuclear weapons to similar examination. This, despite the fact that even after the Cold War, U.S. taxpayers spend roughly $25-30 billion per year on nuclear-weapon-related programs. The peculiarity of Washington's reaction to the preliminary report, whose findings were unchallenged, raised questions essential to the costing of nuclear weapons. How does the American public view and interpret these costs? How do officials and journalists within Washington interpret these costs? If there are differences between these two responses, what accounts for them? What are the implications of those differences, both in terms of understanding past nuclear policies and planning for the future?

Fiscal costs alone do not represent the full burden that nuclear weapons have imposed on the people of the United States and other countries with nuclear weapon establishments. Governments generally do not hesitate to herald the benefits of nuclear weaponsósecurity, prestige, prowessóbut they doggedly resist efforts to identify, publicize and debate the burdens. Among the latter are contamination of land and water near nuclear facilities, harm to worker and neighbor health, limitations on political liberties in the name of national security, unsafe operation of nuclear facilities, and diversion of monies that are needed to solve social problemsópoverty, education, health and environment. The Foundation supports a number of projects in the United States and elsewhere to identify and publicize these liabilities. In the United States, with its unique legal protections and traditions, whistleblowers frequently are the primary source of public knowledge of harmful practices. Hence, the Foundation supports several projects to protect whistleblowers and promulgate their findings to the public.

Nuclear weapons cannot be valued properly if people do not have the information with which to weigh their costs and benefits. If their cost continues to be unknown or ignored, policy is by definition distorted, and unbefitting of a government accountable to its citizens. In 1996 and beyond, the Foundation will continue to support efforts to assess and make public the long-hidden costs of nuclear weapons.

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