If Anything, $700 Billion Underestimates U.S. Nuke Spending in Next Decade

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How much are we spending on nukes?

This week the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler assigned two Pinocchios to the Ploughshares Fund estimate that the United States will spend upwards of $700 billion on nuclear weapons programs over the next decade.  My take on this debate, based on a Global Zero study, comes down in favor of Ploughshares.

In an exchange with Glenn I wrote:

“Glenn, here’s our take on spending.  As you note, and our analysis says clearly, it all depends on what’s included or omitted.   We estimate ‘core’ costs at about $30 billion per year, which is fairly close to Pentagon figures (don’t forget that the Pentagon has never straightened out its books well enough to be audited), but also believe that consumers should know that a fuller picture would plausibly include items like $9 billion per year disposal and cleanup costs in the nuclear cost estimates.  Note also in our footnote the plethora of activities such a nuclear intelligence gathering that have been excluded from the cost estimates.  A goodly portion of the $55 billion dollars annual U.S. spending on non-military intelligence, and much of homeland security spending, are devoted to protecting the United States against nuclear threats.  Granted, this is not spending on U.S. nuclear weapons per se, but the global nuclear arms business of nine (or ten if you count Iran) countries is responsible for a hefty global nuclear spending budget – which we estimate at about $1 trillion per decade in total as the full cost for the world.  The total elimination of nuclear weapons around the world would save upwards of that amount.  We would still continue to spend on clean-up and nuclear intelligence, and other items, but it would result in a whopping savings.

I think your two Pinocchios should be retracted.”

Glenn’s response:

“Bruce, thanks for this. I hadn’t seen this but I think looking at core and full costs is a reasonable way to do it, and it fits with my recommendation to Ploughshares. I think just using that one big number is misleading–and you can see how it had taken off in the media and Congress, often without much context. If they had broken it apart as you did, my guess is it would have forced people to be more careful when citing the figure.”

But Glenn does not back away from his conclusion that Ploughshares exaggerated nuke spending. In my estimation, Ploughshares (full disclosure — Global Zero receives substantial funding from Ploughshares) was conservative in its estimate:

“Glenn, I agree but I still would not assert (as your piece does) that $700 billion is an exaggeration.  It actually might be way too low as an estimate of U.S. spending ‘caused’ by the nuclear arms business of the world.  As I mentioned earlier, it actually excludes a lot of relevant, ‘related’ activities.  Nuclear intelligence gathering alone might be estimated in the tens of billions per year.  The point is that ending the global nuclear weapons business – the agenda of Global Zero (and Ploughshares) might well save the U.S. more than $700 billion in total per decade.  Perhaps much more.”