Time for Nuclear Savings Bonds?

Although it’s been 20 years since the Cold War ended, the U.S. is still holding on to a grossly oversized nuclear arsenal ? most of which are no longer needed by the military. Thanks to Hans Kristensen at the Federation of America Scientists, I’ve learned that 70 percent of the America’s warheads are not being deployed and that more than 40 percent has been discarded by the military. Some 2,500 nuclear warheads are currently deployed, with a comparable number held in the “war reserve,” and 3,500 are awaiting elimination. The “war reserve” is needed as a hedge just in case Russia decides to rekindle the nuclear arms race ? a sacrosanct U.S. policy based on the logic that the winner of a nuclear war is the one with the most left over. The current U.S. nuclear arsenal has a destructive power about 400 times greater than the explosives used by all combatants during World War II.

The current backlog of retired nuclear warheads will take 15 years to eliminate. My children might live long enough to see the existing stockpile of discarded weapons disappear. This is because the Obama administration plans to curb nuclear warhead dismantlement spending by 50 percent over the next five years. If the New START treaty is approved, nearly 80% of U.S. nuclear warheads will not be deployed with as many as 5,000 warheads waiting to be eliminated. According to Kristensen and his colleague Robert S. Norris at the Natural Resources Defense Council, the current rate of weapons dismantlement is what it was in the 1950s during the height of the Cold War.

But, if proponents of increased nuclear spending, led by Senator John Kyl (R-AZ), have their way, our great-grandchildren will find America still bristling with nuclear arms. While most of the government stands to see budget cuts, in an effort to garner Kyl’s support for the New START treaty, spending by the Obama administration to maintain the nuclear arsenal and to refurbish the nuclear weapons complex will increase next year by18 percent.

The spending logic of these numbers seems simple. The more nuclear warheads we have sitting around, the more money can be spent on delivery systems, baby-sitting bombs, while trying to make more. Since World War II, America has spent about $5.6 trillion to make and stockpile them ? creating a powerful nuclear entitlement culture that commands two thirds of the U.S. Energy department’s budget.

According to Steve Schwartz of the James Martin Center on Non-Proliferation, the U.S. Spent about $54 billion in 2009 on nuclear weapons and their delivery systems (bombers, ground and submarine missile launchers). If you include these expenses, each nuclear warhead costs about $6.3 million per year to keep around.

Wonder why America can’t seem to keep up with nations like Germany and China when it comes to an advanced energy policy? Perhaps it’s because the Energy department spends 10 times more on nuclear weapons than energy conservation.

The National Nuclear Security Agency within DOE estimates it will need about $85 billion over the next ten years and about $168 billion over twenty years to maintain the nuclear arsenal and refurbish the U.S. weapons complex. This does not include the additional $100 billion estimated for the weapons delivery systems in the Defense department. Given that the Obama administration sees no need to further tax the wealthy and that hundreds of billions of dollars will have to be borrowed from China for nuclear weapons, consideration might be given to issuing new “Nuclear Savings Bonds” to help pay for all of this. I’ve created a prototype of what they might look like.

ROBERT ALVAREZ, an Institute for Policy Studies senior scholar, served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department’s secretary from 1993 to 1999. www.ips-dc.org