Interview with Former OMB Nuclear Weapons Budget Examiner

, | November 22, 2010, 9:03 am EDT
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With the Senate in a fierce debate over a ten-year plan for nuclear weapons spending, I decided to get the opinion of a true expert on the nuclear weapons budget. Dr. Robert Civiak is a physicist who, from 1988 through 1999, was the Program and Budget Examiner for Department of Energy nuclear security activities at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB). From 1988 through 1999, Dr. Civiak was also a specialist in Energy Technology in the Science Policy Division of the Congressional Research serviceand a Visiting Scientist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in 1988. 

Question 1: The Obama administration has budgeted $84.1 billion for nuclear weapons programs over the next 10 years, and more than $180 billion over the next twenty. This is an average of $8-9 billion per year. Based on your experience, how significant an increase is this money, and in historical terms, how big is this budget?

Civiak: To put this into context, in 2010 $6.4 billion was spent on nuclear weapons. At the height of the Cold War in the 1970s and 1980s the Department of Energy was spending about $5 billion each year, even after accounting for inflation, on nuclear weapons.

Question 2: Due to demands from Republicans, last week the Obama administration previewed for Senate staff a new 10-year budget for nuclear weapons. How common is it for an administration to expedite a budget review, have these figures, and present them to Congress this early in the budget process?

Civiak: Clearly very extraordinary. In just about every year, the administration is making trade-offs and determining its final budget priorities up until Christmas or even New Year. Most presidents are very reluctant to release any information before all the numbers are final. So this really is a highly unusual turn of events. Occasionally if there was a major new initiative, they would announce perhaps a general spending figure, but they wouldn’t give out exact spending figures before the budget was released. Highly unusual. I’ve never seen it.

Question 3: Senator Kyl has been demanding additional money for nuclear weapons before he allows a vote on New START. The Obama administration has just offered an additional $4.1 billion for nuclear weapons over the next five years. Does this money now have to be part of the FY12 budget request? Earlier this year, Congress approved a Continuing Resolution that contained an increase for nuclear weapons spending. If Congress decides to approve a full year continuing resolution, is OMB likely to revoke the anomaly for nuclear weapons?

Civiak: Well, in terms of the FY12 budget request, the President is free to request anything he wants in the budget. If he feels he’s made a deal, he might feel obliged to live up to the deal, but at this point there is nothing in law that would require him to request any specific amount in FY12.

In terms of a Continuing Resolution, Congress is free to include whatever it wants in the Continuing Resolution and it could include nothing for nuclear weapons or it could include $20 billion for nuclear weapons. But this Congress cannot tie the hands of any future Congresses. The funding for nuclear weapons is on a year-by-year basis, and it’s extremely difficult to guarantee funding in the future.

Question 4: What is the history of the National Nuclear Security Agency being given large sums of money in short periods of time? Can this money be efficiently used for the purpose it is intended?

Civiak: Well, I’m not sure what purpose it is intended for. It certainly isn’t needed to maintain nuclear weapons, so it’s not at all clear what this money would be spent on except for large, expensive new facilities for the weapons laboratories.

I believe the arsenal can be maintained at about half the 2010 level, somewhere in the $3 to $4 billion range, not $8 billion. And when I say maintain, that means keep the nuclear weapons functioning the way they were intended to function. I mean, a nuclear weapon isn’t all that complicated. Its purpose is to make a large explosion. That purpose can be maintained at much less than the current spending.

Senator Kyl wants new facilities, the main purpose of which would be to build new nuclear weapons. The “primaries” of existing nuclear weapons—the essential core of the nuclear weapon—will last at least 60 years and don’t need to be changed or rebuilt. And that’s what these new facilities are for, to rebuild the uranium and plutonium parts of nuclear weapons.*

The existing uranium and plutonium parts are fine the way they are, and the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration has said that themselves. Nevertheless, they want to make changes and tweak these parts to produce new nuclear weapons. They don’t call them new or upgraded nuclear weapons, they just call them “modernized” weapons, or they talk about “life extension” programs. But they’re really talking about changes to the uranium and plutonium parts of nuclear weapons, and that’s a very expensive task to do. That is not necessary to maintain the stockpile to do that; it’s not necessary even if you want to modernize the stockpile in terms of putting in new electronics and such. That can be done with much less money.

Question 5: Is there any doubt in your mind that there’s more than enough money to support the nuclear weapons stockpile and its supporting infrastructure? Is there any reason why senators should oppose New START on the grounds of modernization?

Civiak: No. This funding issue is a total red herring. There is no lack of funding for nuclear weapons. To answer the first question, we’re spending more today—considerably more today—than we did at the height of the Cold War, we know a lot more about nuclear weapons than we did then, and so these large increases in funding are not needed to maintain the arsenal.

*JASON, the independent technical advisors to Congress on nuclear weapons issues have found that “Most primary types have credible minimum lifetimes in excess of 100 years as regards aging of plutonium; those with assessed minimum lifetimes of 100 years or less have clear mitigation paths that are proposed and/or being implemented.” Click here to read a blog post on this topic.

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