From 1940 to 1996, U.S. expenditures for nuclear weapons exceeded the combined total federal spending on education, health, agriculture, the environment, law enforcement, energy, and employment training and social services. These expenditures, totaling $5.5 trillion dollars (in 1996 terms), indicated the profound impact of nuclear weapons on American life in the second half of the century. Perhaps more remarkable than the figure itself is that it was unknown until calculated by a team of ten Foundation grantees working four years under the Brookings Institutions auspices. The U.S. government, including Congress, had never asked for a systematic audit of nuclear-weapons related costs. After the Brookings Institution published the Atomic Audit, top U.S. government officials concluded that the study's assessment was fair, and the results have since generated constructive new debates over nuclear weapons costs in India and other countries.
Poor oversight, wildly optimistic technical claims, and political reluctance to question national security spending have all contributed to rising levels of expenditures. Indications abound that the trend will continue. In 1998, the U.S. Congress and the Clinton administration took turns adding billions of dollars to budgets for ballistic missile defenses despite repeated test failures and ongoing technical problems. Genuine threat perceptions have motivated these increased allocations, as have financial contributions of weapons contractors to political campaigns and the desire by officials to appear to be "strong" on defense. Clearly the potential economic and international security costs and benefits of ballistic missile defenses need to be more fully evaluated. The Foundation supports bipartisan dialogue on this important subject.
The health costs posed by civilian and military applications of nuclear technology are harder to measure, though no less important, than the economic costs. Research and public education by Foundation grantees and others have helped persuade responsible agencies to give greater attention to health issues. In 1998, a government panel issued six recommendations to improve the public health measures available to victims of radiation exposure.
Regardless of costs, countries may still choose to build nuclear weapons and rely on other nuclear technologies. Yet, unlike during much of the Cold War, there is a growing international awareness that these costs are higher than advertised, and that informed consent requires fuller governmental disclosures. Many of the Foundation's grantees have contributed to this awareness.