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Obama administration plans fewer nukes, more nuclear weapons money

The Obama administration plans to reduce the size of the US nuclear arsenal by 30-40% in the next two decades . But there’s a dark side to the good news: the plan includes overall cost increases that raise spending beyond Cold War levels and increase capacity to build new nuclear weapons, according to newly released sections of the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) budget proposal.

The proposal, titled “FY 2011 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” was obtained and released earlier this week by two prominent scientific groups: Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS.) Both groups oppose increased spending and modification of aging nuclear weapons in the name of so-called “modernization.”

Here’s an excerpt of the groups’ press release:

[The plan] calls for US to spend nearly $175 billion (in then-year dollars) from 2010 to 2030 on new weapons production, testing and simulation facilities, and on modernizing and extending the life of the remaining weapons in the arsenal. That price tag does not include the cost of maintaining and operating nuclear weapons delivery systems, which is covered by the Department of Defense budget.

The two science groups also questioned some of NNSA’s key assumptions. For example, they questioned the need to maintain the capability of supporting 3,000 to 3,500 weapons even if the number of weapons in the stockpile dropped below 1,000.

It’s obvious why the administration didn’t previously release these cost estimates. Arms control groups agree that the budget proposal is nonsensical, particularly during this economy. According to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS:

That calculation makes no sense. It’s akin to saying that today’s stockpile of about 5,000 weapons requires a complex of nearly the same size and cost as when the stockpile had 8,000 warheads. Given the size of the federal deficit, the Obama administration needs to think more clearly about how it spends taxpayers’ money.

Given NNSA’s shoddy accounting practices and failure to control the budget, that astronomical $175 billion figure could likely get even bigger. Experts from FAS and UCS rightly predict that costs of the NNSA proposal will likely be much higher than the cost estimates.

Why is the Obama administration supporting such a costly proposal? Paul Richter of the L.A. Times points out that cost increases are part of the administration’s political strategy. The Obama administration seeks to wins votes from conservative senators who are raising concerns about the administration’s nuclear nonproliferation agenda, including the New START Treaty. But that’s a compromise the administration shouldn’t be willing to make.

It is important to remember that the proposal is not all bad. In their press release, the scientific groups fully support the administration’s positive steps towards a nuclear weapons-free world. Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of UCS’s Global Security Program says:

Nuclear weapons are now a liability, not an asset, so the plan to reduce the U.S. nuclear stockpile is a step in the right direction.

But she also warns against the hypocrisy of calling for reduction of nuclear weapons while at the same time increasing spending for maintenance and infrastructure costs. It sends a mixed message to both non-nuclear states and nuclear states that rely on the US as a champion of the nonproliferation agenda.

Not only could extensive ‘improvements’ reduce the reliability of the warheads, they would send the wrong message when we are trying to get other countries to reduce their arsenals.

In upcoming weeks, the Senate is likely to vote on the New START Treaty. When it passes, the number of deployed strategic nuclear warheads the US and Russia agree on will be reduced by about a third. Let’s not overshadow that success with a long-term proposal that inflates nuclear spending and sends the wrong message to the world.