The Great $500 Billion Nuclear Debate of 2011

At the Washington Post’s the Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler writes:

In these grim economic times, the cost of maintaining and upgrading the United States’ aging nuclear arsenal of 5,000 warheads is certainly a ripe topic for discussion. The U.S. government has never officially disclosed the exact cost, and whether one should include environmental clean-up costs, missile defense and other programs related to nuclear weapons is a legitimate topic of debate.

But the Obama administration objects to the figure of $700 billion that it ostensibly plans to spend on nuclear weapons over the next decade. The arms control group the Ploughshares Fund arrived at the figure, which has been cited by the media and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Kessler writes:

James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense, told Congress on Nov. 2 that the figure was close to $214 billion over ten years, with $88 billion being spent at the Energy Department, which maintains nuclear weapons, and more than $125 billion spent on delivery systems at the Defense Department.

“I’ve had an opportunity to look at some of the materials that were referenced in the cost estimates just before coming over here and I—without giving this more time than it deserves—suffice it to say there was double counting and some rather curious arithmetic involved,” Miller said.

“Without giving this more time than it deserves”? Excuse me, but if, as Kessler writes, the “U.S. government has never officially disclosed the exact cost” — never mind “whether one should include environmental clean-up costs, missile defense and other programs related to nuclear weapons [should be] a legitimate topic of debate,” does Miller really expect disarmament advocates to refrain from trying to divine the figures on their own?

When it comes to “curious arithmetic,” it seems like a case of a kettle trying to find a pot to call black. Furthermore, writes Kessler

A big unknown question is whether the DOD figure of $125 billion really includes all of the modernization costs, as Miller suggested. … “It’s a little like saying it costs me $1,000 a year to operate my car, except that I am not counting the cost of insurance, repairs, registration, taxes, etc.,” [Stephen Schwartz, editor of the Nonproliferation Review] said. “The actual cost is higher, maybe even much higher. But unless the folks at DOD can provide us with a breakout of the costs for each system, it’s impossible to say what’s included and what’s not.”

As for the Ploughshares Fund figure that Rep. Markey used:

Schwartz said that he warned Ploughshares and Markey’s office to be careful with these estimates, especially when lumping many things together. “Unfortunately. … Ploughshares wanted a large number to make their case for political reasons.”

Its president, Joseph Cirincione,responded with a full explanation of how he arrived at $700 billion. Then he added:

Because the government keeps so much of its budget hidden from the public, reasonable people can and will argue over the total costs. … In fact, it is an absolutely essential debate.

But it needs to be a transparent debate. It is not acceptable for politicians to push their favorite programs with false, incomplete or misleading cost estimates.

While this author has reservations about the Ploughshares Fund, it’s impossible not to agree with Cirincione. Besides, whatever the numbers, it’s just a pleasant surprise to see a discussion of the nuclear-weapons budget playing out in the media.