Nuclear Weapons

$7.6 billion buys a lot of Valentine candy

Today, the Obama administration released their budget request for 2013. Here’s a look at the multi-billion dollar early Valentine’s Day gift to the nuclear weapons complex squirreled away within the Department of Energy’s budget.

The President is requesting $7.6 billion for nuclear weapons activities, which is a lot of money. But let’s start with the good news: It turns out nuclear weapons are not completely safe from the deficit-cutting budget axe.

Good: The Total is Less Than We Expected

In 2010, the administration announced a 10-year plan to increase nuclear weapons spending, and according to that plan they were going to request $7.9 billion for 2013, which would have been a 9% increase over what Congress approved last year. But apparently, they decided to face reality and accept that nukes can’t have complete immunity from the tough choices that have to be made in these difficult times. This request of $7.6 billion is a 5% increase over 2012, and still a lot of money to waste on nuclear weapons, but hopefully a sign that they are coming around.

Good: New Nuclear Bomb Plant Gets Zero Dollars

Last year, Congress gave the DOE $200 million to start work on a new nuclear bomb factory in Los Alamos, New Mexico that would increase our capacity to build new nuclear weapons. But, for 2013 the administration is asking for nothing! Zip, zero, zilch.

That is exactly how much this bomb plant should get, because it is expensive and unnecessary and the planning has been a mess since the beginning. As POGO explains, there are at least eight reasons this facility is a disaster. For example, the estimated cost of this plant has ballooned exponentially in the 10 years they’ve been planning it, here you can see just how much:

Courtesy of Project on Government Oversight, pogo.org

Oh, and that is their estimate based on a design that is only 45% complete. After 10 years of planning. We don’t know how much longer it will take to finish the design, or how much the estimates could increase when they do. The DOE says they are postponing the project for 5 years to save money while they work on a more urgent facility, and claim this will save taxpayers $1.8 billion in the next 5 years. But this bomb plant will only be more unnecessary and more of a waste of money in 5 years. What they should do is scrap the plant entirely and save us $5.9 billion.

We’ll get to the bad news after the jump:

Bad: Deprioritizing Nonproliferation

President Obama has pledged to get all loose nuclear bomb-making material around the world cleaned up by 2014. This is an urgent priority, since that loose nuclear material is really the biggest threat to our national security. However, the funding priorities don’t seem to be lining up with that commitment. Even while the total nuclear weapons budget is increasing by millions every year, the budget requests for the most crucial nonproliferation programs have dropped over the last two years, with a combined cut of almost $300 million this year.

Bad: The Other New Nuclear Bomb Factory

There’s another expensive and unnecessary facility being planned in Oak Ridge, Tennessee to process uranium for nuclear weapons. And the DOE is not only moving ahead with this one, they are asking for more than double what they got last year: $340 million. Postponing the Los Alamos plant is great, but this plant should be cut as well. It’s now estimated to cost as much as $6.5 billion once it’s done, and we can’t afford one of these factories any more than we can afford two.

Bad: Tinkering with Obsolete Nuclear Bombs

$369 million is requested for a program for one of the nukes in our arsenal, the B61 gravity bomb, a 66% increase over last year’s funding. The program is set to spend over $5.2 billion in total to take apart each bomb and change out their parts to “extend the life” of the bombs. However, the military effectiveness of these bombs is in question, some European leaders want our B61s out of their countries ASAP, and this replacement program will not be completed until 2023. Do we want to decide the weapons are obsolete now, or wait until 11 years and $5.2 billion later and then decide? We should be smart and take all of the B61s out of service now, before we throw even more good money after bad.

Bad: Yet Another Massive Nuclear Plant

In case two new bomb plants weren’t enough, there is construction underway on a nuclear fuel-processing plant in South Carolina. The purpose of this plant is to take weapons-grade plutonium, and mix it with uranium to make a new fuel to use in nuclear power plants. Besides the fact that this project is way over budget and behind schedule, using plutonium in power plants is a terrible idea. The nuclear power plant in Fukushima, Japan that was damaged by the earthquake and tsunami last year was using this mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel in one of its reactors. And in the event of accidents like Fukushima where radiation is released from the reactor into the atmosphere, the plutonium in the fuel makes the radiation much more toxic to humans and the environment than normal uranium fuel.

The budget asks for a total of $887 $917 million for this program this year, and got one of the biggest increases in the budget: $219 $234 million more than last year Congress approved for 2012. But that should be cut to zero. This project should be completely scrapped, and the money should be spent on other methods for dealing with weapons-grade plutonium that are much safer.

Bad: Cutting Back on Dismantlement 

About 40% of the nuclear weapons in the US are actually warheads that have already been retired from the military stockpile and are sitting in a long, long line waiting to be dismantled. Keeping these warheads safe is costing us money every year. The current budget only asks for $51 million for dismantlement for 2013, a 10% drop from last year. The current priorities should be reversed, and some of the millions being spent on new bomb plants should be redirected to speed up the dismantlement process and take more nuclear warheads apart as soon as possible.

To Summarize: Still Too Much

Even though this budget request is slightly lower than we expected, it is still way too much money, and it continues to prioritize all of the wrong things. And it makes no sense for this budget to continue to grow while our arsenal continues to shrink. It does seem that this runaway train might be slowing down, but if we don’t put on the brakes for real and start cutting back on nuclear weapons spending now, we will only continue to throw away money on the wrong things. Peace Action West will work in 2012 to convince Congress to realign our budget priorities and cut wasteful spending on nuclear weapons and bomb plants.

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