Issues in Science and Technology, Online A Publication of National Academy of Sciences National Academy of Engineering Institute of Medicine University of Texas at Dallas
  • Home
  • Back Issues
  • Search

Book Review

Nuclear reckoning

Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, Stephen I. Schwartz, ed. Bruce G. Blair, Thomas S. Blanton, William Burr, Steven M. Kosiak, Arjun Makhijani, Robert S. Norris, Kevin O'Neill, John E. Pike, and William J. Weida, contributing authors. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 1998, 680 pp.

Jack Mendelsohn

After a truly admirable research effort, Stephen Schwartz and his colleagues have calculated for the first time the cost of all aspects of the U.S. nuclear weapons program, from its inception in 1940 to the end of 1996. In constant 1996 dollars, the authors estimate total U.S. spending at a stunning $5.48 trillion dollars, or roughly 29 percent of all military spending ($18.7 trillion) during those years. These costs include building, deploying, targeting, and controlling nuclear weapons, defending against them, dismantling them, compensating victims, protecting secrets, managing nuclear waste, and remediating the environment. The $5.48 trillion, they point out, exceeds all other categories of government spending during this period, except for nonnuclear national defense ($13.2 trillion) and social security ($7.9 trillion). On average, the cost of developing and maintaining the nuclear arsenal equaled nearly $98 billion per year during that span, and the total figure amounted to almost 11 percent of all government expenditure.

In chapters devoted to each of the categories noted above, the authors trace the history of nuclear-related programs, their budgets (or best-guess estimates thereof), and their successes, failures, and excesses. This, the main part of the book, makes two invaluable contributions to the literature on and the debate over U.S. nuclear policy. First, it aggregates all that had been known, as well as a great deal that the authors themselves uncovered or reconstructed during their research, about the costs of the U.S. nuclear infrastructure. Although the authors acknowledge that their estimate is not definitive-much relevant data has been lost, classified, or never existed-Atomic Audit presents as good an overall accounting of our nuclear weapons investment as we are likely to get for the foreseeable future. The bottom line is that nuclear weapons, when all the costs of their supporting infrastructure are taken into account, demonstrably do not provide security on the cheap. Moreover, they write, "government officials over more than 50 years failed consistently to ensure that what was spent on nuclear weapons was spent wisely and in the most efficient manner."

The second major contribution of Atomic Audit is its comprehensive listing and discussion of every known warhead, delivery system, concept, and project (completed, controversial, canceled, or cockamamie) in our nuclear past. The reader can find, for example, a list of all U.S. nuclear delivery systems that have been deployed; the 25 missile programs that did not make the cut but still accounted for expenditures of $46.8 billion; the various types of U.S. nuclear warheads; a description of the nation's emergency command posts; and examples of U.S. radiation experiments on humans.

As for potential programs that remained, thankfully unrealized, my favorite is to be found in the "HEAVENBOUND" study, which concluded that the proposed concept of air-to-air bombing, in which a free-fall nuclear weapon would be dropped onto Soviet bomber formations, held little promise of providing an effective defense. As for controversy, there is, of course, the persistent pursuit of ballistic missile defenses. According to Atomic Audit, ballistic missile defenses have thus far soaked up more than $100 billion, or about a tenth of the nearly one trillion dollars we have spent to defend against the bomb through strategic air defenses, civil defense, antisubmarine warfare, antisatellite weapons, and so forth. If Congress decides to deploy a national missile defense policy, despite compelling reasons for not doing so, that figure could easily double during the next two decades.

Going overboard

Many of the conclusions drawn by the authors in Atomic Audit will seem familiar, even intuitive, to those who have been engaged critically in the national security debate, and this book supports them with an impressive collection of programmatic and budgetary detail. Not surprisingly, the Soviet threat was often used to justify a price-is-no-object attitude toward U.S. national security programs and to generate uncritical support for questionable policies and programs. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO), in a 1993 report on the strategic nuclear triad, succinctly described one practical result of this approach. Evaluating the Reagan administration's modernization program, GAO noted that during the 1980s, the Department of Defense had tended "to overstate threats to our weapons systems, to understate the performance of mature systems, to overstate the expected performance of upgrades, and to understate the expected costs of those upgrades."

The book is replete with examples of how, in the heat of the confrontation, common sense often fell prey to presidential politics (the Star Wars debates), bureaucratic advocacy (nuclear-powered aircraft), or scientific arrogance (human radiation experiments). The authors also make clear the risks that the United States runs by continuing to believe that its security is enhanced by deploying more nuclear weapons. And, thanks to Atomic Audit, we now have the data to show that the nuclear weapons infrastructure is a substantially more expensive enterprise that many had believed. Although in the past, the authors write, "the domestic and international pressures of the Cold War made the financial aspects of the arms race of secondary importance to ensuring U.S. security," they maintain that "there is no justification today for continued inattention" to this fact.

In the final chapter of Atomic Audit, the authors make several recommendations. They ask Congress to pass legislation requiring the president to prepare and submit annually with each year's budget a report detailing the comprehensive costs of all nuclear weapons-related government programs. They urge the president to play a more active role in formulating nuclear weapons policy and requirements. They also encourage the Department of Energy (DOE) to continue the its openness initiative, an effort launched in late 1993 in which information was released on U.S. fissile material production and nuclear testing. Finally, they urge Congress to strengthen its oversight of nuclear weapons programs, focusing "not just on the most expensive or most controversial items in the budget in any given year but rather on the larger strategic picture of how nuclear weapons would be used, how the various elements of the program contribute to deterrence, and what constitutes deterrence in the post-cold war era."

Unanswered question

If there is a criticism to be made of Atomic Audit, it relates to an underlying assumption. Although the nuclear weapons infrastructure was more expensive to establish and maintain than we realized, it would have cost us (and our allies) considerably more to have countered the Soviet threat with conventional forces alone. For better or worse, we and our allies were unwilling to match the Soviet Union tank for tank and division for division, preferring instead to rely on nuclear weapons for deterrence and to direct resources toward a desperately needed post-World War II economic and social recovery, particularly in Europe. This was undeniably a dangerous and paradoxical policy: How could we possibly protect Europe by exploding nuclear weapons in its midst? But it worked and freed up money for other important purposes.

There are, as well, occasional lapses in the political analysis. Schwartz reckons that from 1948 to 1991 the average annual spending for nuclear testing and the activities now called stockpile stewardship was $3.6 billion. But DOE now proposes to spend $4.3 billion to maintain nuclear weapons without any testing under the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. How, he asks, could a program of "extremely limited weapons production and simulated testing exceed Cold War-era costs encompassing large-scale production and testing?" The authors certainly realize that a price-workfare for the national laboratories-had to be paid to get the bureaucracy to support the test ban. In effect, it was the domestic equivalent of Nunn-Lugar, the program aimed at helping Russia reduce its nuclear stockpile. The authors may not like the idea of a payoff, but to ignore it as a factor (which they recognize elsewhere when describing how defense programs acquire constituencies) is to lose a chance to seriously influence policy decisions.

Finally, the authors' recommendations that there be an annual report on the overall nuclear budget as well as greater congressional oversight may not produce consistently useful outcomes. Inconvenient realities have a way of being overlooked when politics are involved; witness congressional support for national missile defense and NATO expansion despite the high price tags and serious policy liabilities of both. Although Congress, on the other hand, did legislate a nuclear testing moratorium and refused to allow the Reagan administration to trash the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, as a body it has very limited ability to adumbrate nuclear strategy or determine what constitutes deterrence.

The key to changing nuclear policy, as the authors suggest, is presidential leadership, strength, interest, and activism. Admittedly, this is a rare combination of qualities, but who knows what the millennium may bring. In the meantime, with Atomic Audit we have a splendid one-stop reference, great ammunition for the never-ending battle with the forces of nuclear darkness.

Jack Mendelsohn, a member of the U.S. Salt II and Start I delegations and former deputy director of the Arms Control Association, is Olin Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval Academy.