The nuclear arms race has cost the United States nearly $4 trillion, a staggering financial toll that was never disclosed to the American public, according to a major study unveiled by the Brookings Institution.
The study attacks the Cold War wisdom that nuclear weapons provided the nation with a cheap way to deter its enemies following the detonation of the first atomic bomb 50 years ago Sunday in New Mexico.
“There was a presumption that nuclear weapons gave the biggest bang for the buck, but nobody was counting the bucks,” said Arjun Makhijani, a nuclear waste expert who participated in the Brookings study. “What got counted officially was just 10 percent of the real cost.”
The Brookings study marks the first systematic effort to tabulate the cost of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems, as well as the vast spending on related technologies that never resulted in deployed weapons.
The report’s authors contend the size of the U.S. nuclear stockpile - and its subsequent cost - were determined arbitrarily, fueled by interservice rivalries in the military, pork-barrel politics in Congress, and broad governmental secrecy that kept the true costs of the buildup hidden from the public.
The actual cost of producing roughly 70,000 nuclear bombs since World War II was only a small part of a much larger strategic effort to build missiles, bombers and the sophisticated national control systems that put forces on 24-hour nuclear alert, the study states.
An estimated $375 billion was spent on the bombs; $15 billion on decommissioning the bombs; $25 billion on secrecy, security and arms control; $2 trillion on delivery systems, and $1.1 trillion on command systems and air defenses. In addition, an estimated $385 billion will be spent to clean up radioactive wastes created by the arms race.
Dan Reicher, deputy chief of staff at the Energy Department, said the agency had looked over the report and concluded that the estimates pertaining to the Energy Department were “in the right ballpark.”
In hindsight, the Brookings authors contend that the oversized nuclear arsenal was a product of unrealistic military thinking about its potential use. They cited, for example, a now-declassified Army document that projected that a European land war would require the use of up to 400 nuclear weapons per day.
But some nuclear weapons experts took sharp exception to the report’s underlying suggestion that waste was rampant and that much of the nuclear build-up was unnecessary.
“I don’t think we had any choice,” said Charles Herzfeld, a former senior Pentagon official and a consultant to Los Alamos National Laboratory. “People who say otherwise are engaging in revisionist history of the most extreme sort.”
The $4 trillion, computed in current 1995 dollars, is more than the total value of outstanding mortgage loans on every building in the United States, and could easily fund the reconstruction of every school in the nation, said William Weida, an author of the study.