A Nuclear Surge

In the Bush administration's new budget, programs such as Medicaid, Medicare, and early childhood development will be cut to make room for more than half a trillion dollars for the Pentagon and war-fighting. Against the backdrop of such enormous spending and a war that is draining $2 billion a week, the Department of Energy's "weapons activities" budget seems almost small at $6.4 billion.

But that budget line points to a key White House policy objective that receives scant attention. Under President Bush, nuclear weapons—once viewed as an apocalyptic scourge in need of abolition, disarmament, or at the very least strict arms control—are baaaaack. In fact, they are surging forward.

During the Cold War, spending on nuclear weapons averaged $4.2 billion a year (in current dollars). Now, almost two decades after the nuclear animosity between the two great superpowers ended, the United States is spending one and a half times the Cold War annual average on nuclear weapons.

In 2001, the weapons-activities budget of the Department of Energy, which oversees the nuclear weapons complex through the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), totaled $5.19 billion. Since Bush's January 2002 "Nuclear Posture Review" asserted the urgent need for a "revitalized nuclear weapons complex" able "to design, develop, manufacture, and certify new warheads in response to new national requirements; and maintain readiness to resume underground testing," there has been a jump in nuclear spending of more than $1 billion a year. But it is just the beginning: The NNSA's five-year "National Security Plan" calls for annual increases to reach $7.76 billion a year by 2009.

KEY TO REVITALIZING nuclear weapons is Complex 2030, the NNSA's "infrastructure planning scenario for a nuclear weapons complex able to meet the threats of the 21st century." It is a costly, illegal, and dangerous program aimed at rebuilding the 50-year-old nuclear facilities where the weapons are both assembled and disassembled.

How costly? The DOE estimates that Complex 2030 would require a capital investment of $150 billion. But the Government Accountability Office says that is way too low to fund even the basic maintenance of the eight nuclear facilities currently operational throughout the country.

Why illegal? Complex 2030 promises a return to the Cold War cycle of design, development, and production of nuclear weapons, runs the risk of a return to underground nuclear testing, and could require the manufacture of hundreds of new plutonium pits—the fissile "heart" of a nuclear weapon—a year. These plans directly contradict U.S. treaty promises in 1968 "to negotiate toward general and complete disarmament."

Really dangerous? Every step the United States takes away from the international consensus on the illegality and immorality of nuclear weapons is a new incentive and justification for other nations to pursue and brandish nuclear weapons. In a 2006 report, the independent Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission estimated the dark likelihood of 10 new nuclear powers within a decade, and at the end of January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved forward the hand on its Doomsday Clock to five minutes to nuclear midnight, in part as a result of "renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons."

As the U.S. surges forward in its nuclear renaissance, the threat of nuclear terrorism and accidental nuclear strikes remain grave, and yet are underfunded issues. The administration occasionally raises the specter of nuclear armed terrorists: In February 2004, for example, Bush warned, "In the hands of terrorists, weapons of mass destruction would be a first resort."

Despite its rhetoric, the administration has done nothing to accelerate efforts to destroy and safeguard loose nuclear weapons and bomb-making materials, allocating only about $1 billion a year to these crucial non-proliferation efforts. At this rate, it will be 13 years before Russian nuclear material is secured. Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who served as assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, estimates the task could be completed in four years for about the cost of a single season of the war in Iraq.

That seems like a goal worth surging for.

Frida Berrigan is a senior research associate at the New School University's World Policy Institute.

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