Paving Over the Money Pit of Nuclear-Weapons Spending

To conform to the requirements of the congressional supercommittee, the House of Representatives is debating whether to cut hundreds of billions from nuclear weapons programs over the next 10 years.

At the Atlantic, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Funds writes::

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to the 12 members of the supercommittee … signed by 65 lawmakers.” Even though the Cold War ended, Markey wrote, “We continue to spend over $50 billion a year on the U.S. nuclear arsenal. … We are robbing the future to pay for the unneeded weapons of the past.”

The House Appropriations Committee cut funding for nuclear warheads and weapons material production by almost 7 percent from the President’s request, or $498 million. [Meanwhile, the] Senate subcommittee cut just a tad less — $440 million — from the same programs. Members are increasingly troubled by rising costs, slipping schedules and questionable need for new weapons production plants. “The Committee is concerned about the escalating costs for two new nuclear facilities to handle plutonium and uranium,” the Senate report noted.

One of these two new nuclear facilities is the proposed Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF) at Los Alamos National Laboratory. On the grounds that a new Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), instead of just a supplemental EIS, was required because of, among other things, seismic issues (such as a 3.8 earthquake nearby on October 16) the Los Alamos Study Group sought to halt the project.

In his latest press release, LASG executive director Greg Mello writes that, on October 13, “the National Nuclear Security Administration … issued an ‘amended’ ‘Record of Decision’ to build the [CMRR-NF] expected to cost $4 to $6 billion. … as much as the total constant-dollar [adjusted for inflation] cost of all the buildings and programs in Los Alamos for the first decade and a half, from 1943 to 1957.” During the Manhattan Project, that is.

The Record of Decision, Mello explains, “is the formal completion of the most recent environmental review of the project under the National Environmental Policy Act.”

But, just as it looked like it was green-lighted, “We do not anticipate that this project will succeed, in the end,” writes Mello. “We are now in a kind of fiscal ‘Indian Summer;’ the real frosts of deficit reduction have not started to hit. … Many decision makers know there isn’t enough money to build CMRR simultaneously with a more important project in Tennessee unless both are slowed and made much more expensive in the process.” Ironic as that sounds.

He concludes that the United States can’t “afford to maintain such a huge nuclear arsenal in the first place, since the delivery systems are wearing out and very expensive to replace.” As usual, Mello not only looks at the costs, but the wider implications for the real-world economy. The CMRR-NF, like nuclear weapons in general for the most part, “also makes no economically useful infrastructure, attracts no private capital, trains nobody in anything useful for our economy, and produces no goods and services for sale (we hope). … At $1,000,000 per job created, it’s an economic disaster in waiting.”

Remember the movies and Broadway play Little Shop of Horrors? Our nuclear-weapons program is like Audrey II, the carnivorous plant screaming “Feed me.” Time to, in the words of conservatives, starve the beast.