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Nuclear weapons are costly in many ways. They change our relationship to other nations, to the earth, to the future and to ourselves.
In the mid-1990s a group of researchers at the Brookings Institution did a study of US expenditures on nuclear weapons. They found that the US had spent $5.8 trillion between 1940 and 1996 (in constant 1996 dollars).
This figure was informally updated in 2005 to $7.5 trillion from 1940 to 2005 (in constant 2005 dollars). Today the figure is approaching $8 trillion, and that amount is for the US alone.
There are currently nine countries with a total of over 20,000 nuclear weapons, spending $105 billion annually on their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems. That will amount to more than $1 trillion over the next decade. The US accounts for about 60 percent of this amount.
The World Bank has estimated that $40 to $60 billion in annual global expenditures would be sufficient to meet the eight agreed-upon United Nations Millennium Development Goals for poverty alleviation by 2015.
Meeting these goals would eradicate extreme poverty and hunger; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality/empowerment; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop partnerships for development.
The US is now spending over $60 billion annually on nuclear weapons and this is expected to rise to average about $70 billion annually over the next decade. The US spends more than the other eight nuclear weapons states combined.
We are now planning to modernize our nuclear weapons infrastructure and also our nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. This was part of the deal that President Obama agreed to for getting the New START agreement ratified in the Senate. It may prove to be a bad bargain.
The US foreign aid contribution in 2010 was $30 billion; in the same year, we spent $55 billion on our nuclear arsenal. Which expenditures keep us safer?
Another informative comparison is with the regular annual United Nations budget of $2.5 billion and the annual UN Peacekeeping budget of $7.3 billion. UN and Peacekeeping expenditures total to about $10 billion, which is less than one-tenth of what is being spent by the nine nuclear weapon states for maintaining and improving their nuclear arsenals.
The annual UN budget for its disarmament office (United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs) is $10 million. The nuclear weapons states spend more than that amount on their nuclear weapons every hour. Or, to put it another way, the nine nuclear weapons states annually spend 10,000 times more for their nuclear arsenals than the United Nations spends to pursue all forms of disarmament, including nuclear disarmament.
The one place the US is saving money on its nuclear weapons is where it should be spending the most, and that is on the dismantlement of the retired weapons. The amount that the US spends on dismantlement of its nuclear weapons has dropped significantly under the Obama administration from $186 million in 2009 to $96 million in 2010 to $58 million in 2011. In the 1990s the US dismantled more than 1,000 nuclear weapons annually. We dismantled 648 weapons in 2008 and only 260 in 2010.
The US has about 5,000 nuclear weapons awaiting dismantlement, which, at the current rate of dismantlement, will take the US about 20 years. There are another 5,000 US nuclear weapons that are either deployed or held in reserve.
Beyond being very costly to maintain and improve, nuclear weapons have changed us and cost us in many other ways.
They have undermined our respect for the law. How can a country respect the law and be perpetually engaged in threatening mass murder?
These weapons have also undermined our sense of reason, balance and morality. They are designed to kill massively and indiscriminately – men, women and children.
They have increased our secrecy and undermined our democracy. Can you put a cost on losing our democracy?
Uranium mining, nuclear tests and nuclear waste storage for the next 240,000 years have incalculable costs. They are a measure of our hubris, as are the weapons themselves.
Nuclear weapons – perhaps more accurately called instruments of annihilation – require us to play Russian Roulette with our common future. What is the cost of threatening to foreclose the future? What is the cost of actually doing so?