The US Government’s Nuclear Millstone

“While we are investing in areas that are critical to our future, we are also rooting out programs that aren’t needed and making hard choices to tighten our belt,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently declared, when the Obama administration rolled out its budget.

Hold on. If truth in labeling were enforced, this agency should be called the Department of Nuclear Weapons. More than 60 percent of funding for the Energy department goes to propping up an antiquated nuclear infrastructure, naval reactors, maintaining thousands of nuclear warheads and cleaning up the agency’s enormous environmental mess at its weapons sites in Washington, South Carolina and elsewhere. In fact, DOE spends more than 15 times on military nuclear activities than energy conservation.

Taking the perennial back seat are actual energy functions which make up less than 20 percent of the DOE’s budget. Within that small slice, nuclear energy gets the most — about a third of all energy research and development funds. Energy conservation, the one bright spot in this picture, gets about 23 percent. That’s not going to change if Congress accepts Obama’s budget plan, which would boost the department’s spending by about 4 percent from 2011. Solar, wind, geothermal, and other authentically “clean” alternative energy sources each less than 10 percent of DOE’s R&D funds.

Since its creation in 1977 by the Carter administration in response to a sharp rise in oil prices and supply disruptions, the Energy Department has done little to stem the country’s burgeoning energy problems.

With about 4.5 percent of the world’s population, the United States consumes more oil than any other nation and imports more than three-fifths of what it uses. As U.S. energy dependence has worsened, despite all the political instability and tyranny in many oil-rich nations, our greenhouse gas emissions have worsened as well. They’ve increased 17 percent since 1990 and are accelerating potentially disastrous climate disruptions.

Simply put, Obama can’t uphold Chu’s pledge to transform our energy future without completely overhauling the Energy Department.

Despite the rhetoric about reshaping America’s energy future, the department’s single largest expenditure ($7.6 billion) covers the maintenance of some 8,500 nuclear warheads. In seeking support for ratification of the recently enacted New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, Obama agreed to significantly increase funding to “modernize” our nuclear weapons stockpile and rebuild the nuclear weapons production complex. Specifically, annual nuclear weapons spending will rise between 2010 and 2015 by more than 18 percent, from $6.3 billion to $7.83 billion.

This is a down payment for the $167 billion the Energy Department plans to spend over the next 20 years. Even though the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been cut in half, and new weapons design and manufacture ended 20 years ago, spending on nuclear warheads has increased by more than 30 percent since the Cold War ended. And this doesn’t even include an additional $100 billion the Pentagon plans to spend on new deliver systems such as bombers, subs and ICBMs.

Nuclear warheads are proving to cost many more bucks for the bang. Between 2003 and 2016 DOE estimates that it will cost about $15 billion to extend warhead lives. For instance, based on DOE budgets, the per-unit life extension cost for hundreds of the B-61 warheads deployed on bombers appears to be as much as $11 million.

Even nuclear weapons fans might be dismayed to learn that we taxpayers are footing an ever-larger bill to maintain a nuclear arsenal of which only 30 percent is currently deployed. The military has discarded about 40 percent of these weapons, and we’ll scrap about another thousand as part of New START. The remaining 2,500 weapons in the “war reserve” are mainly for retaliatory strikes against population centers.

Despite President Barack Obama’s rhetoric about his aspirations for a world free of nuclear weapons, he’s not making getting rid of our heap of defunct ones a big priority. Currently, warhead dismantlement has dwindled to the lowest level since the 1950s. According to the Energy Department’s budget request dismantlement funding will be cut by more than 50 percent over the next five years. That would leave our nation with a 15-20 year backlog of discarded nukes.

The Energy Department is being called on to usher in a new energy future for the United States, but isn’t equipped to meet that challenge.

The Obama administration should fundamentally restructure it, starting by jettisoning its nuclear weapons millstone, which should be the Pentagon’s job.

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




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