The cost of nuclear security is troubling

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Seven years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, at a time when government officials and outside experts are expressing growing concern about the prospect of a nuclear 9/11, few members of Congress know how much the United States spends on nuclear security or where the money goes.

When Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Energy-designate Steven Chu head into their Senate confirmation hearings today, they'll face difficult questions about how the U.S. is addressing nuclear dangers. Although many lawmakers would rank nuclear threats at the top of their list of national security concerns, they won't have sufficient or comprehensive information to work with.

But Congress can fix this.

Our report, the first public examination of open-source data, shows that the U.S. spent at least $52.4 billion on nuclear weapons and programs in fiscal 2008. This budget, which spans many agencies, not just the Defense Department, does not count related costs for air defense, antisubmarine warfare, classified programs or many nuclear weapons-related intelligence programs.

The 2008 nuclear security budget exceeds all anticipated spending on international diplomacy and foreign assistance ($39.5 billion) and natural resources and the environment ($33 billion). It is nearly double the budget for general science, space and technology ($27.4 billion), and it is almost 14 times what the Energy Department allocated for all energy-related research and development.

Although the size of the overall budget is troubling, another concern is that we spend so little on initiatives to minimize the risk of nuclear and radiological attacks. More than 17 years after the end of the Cold War, it may come as a surprise to Americans that the U.S. still spends relatively large annual sums upgrading and maintaining its nuclear arsenal ($29 billion), developing ballistic missile defenses ($9.2 billion) and addressing the deferred environmental and health costs associated with more than 50 years of unconstrained bomb building and testing ($8.3 billion).

More alarmingly, the government spends relatively little money locking down or eliminating nuclear threats at their source before they can reach U.S. shores ($5.2 billion), or preparing for the consequences of a nuclear or radiological attack on U.S. soil ($700 million).

As President-elect Barack Obama's team heads into an enormously difficult budget season, it will need to propose expenditures that match policy goals and economic realities. How, one might ask Chu, can a Department of Energy that devotes 67 percent of its budget to nuclear weapons-related programs meet Obama's plan to develop new and cleaner forms of energy?

The nuclear threat is changing, and as long as it grows, the United States needs to be prepared to address it -- even in a time of austerity. That starts with knowing where the dollars go.

* Schwartz is editor of the Nonproliferation Review at Monterey Institute of International Studies; Choubey is deputy director of the nonproliferation program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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