Monopoly Money for the Nuclear Monopoly?

July 7, 2010
Nickolas Roth

Throughout the Senate debate on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) one of the central issues has been funding for nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, President Obama asked Congress for the largest nuclear weapons budget in history. However, Republicans, led by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ), continually question whether the nuclear weapons stockpile and its supporting industrial infrastructure are adequately funded. With the release of a new government report, it appears that both Senate Republicans and the administration may lack sufficient information for either side to determine how much money is actually needed for long term maintenance of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report titled “Actions Needed to Identify Total Costs of Weapons Complex Infrastructure and Production Capabilities” detailing the federal government’s loose budgeting and accounting practices for nuclear weapons programs. According to GAO, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA), which is responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear stockpile, determines its future budgets by simply looking at each of its program’s prior year budget and then adds or subtracts money based on programmatic changes. This means, rather than looking at what programs actually cost in any given year, NNSA simply assumes that it is working with the right numbers.

According to GAO, the result is that NNSA “cannot accurately identify the total costs to operate and maintain weapons activities facilities and infrastructure” and “total costs to operate and maintain weapons activities facilities and infrastructure likely significantly exceed” the budget presented to Congress annually. In one case, GAO asked six contractors to provide the total cost of operating and maintaining certain facilities. While Congress allocated approximately $558 for these facilities, the contractors indicated that the actual cost was almost twice that amount.

These findings are not a complete surprise. For more than two decades, GAO has listed nuclear weapons contract and project management programs as being a high risk for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. Cost estimates for one construction project in the ten-year plan, the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement-Nuclear Facility, have already increased by more than 400% since 2006, from $838 million to over $4 billion. GAO has detailed many other examples of overruns describing the inaccuracy of cost estimates for nuclear weapons programs in numerous other programs.

Accuracy in assessing total costs of nuclear weapons is particularly important right now because, as GAO accurately describes, “a bargain is being struck” on nuclear weapons policy. To help build support for New START, the Obama administration is “requesting from Congress billions of dollars in increased investment in the nuclear security enterprise.” As part of a report Congress mandated to accompany the submission of the treaty, the Obama administration released a one-page unclassified summary earlier this year, titled “The New START Treaty – Maintaining a Strong Nuclear Deterrent.” The report outlines an $80 billion ten-year budget for nuclear weapons, including large budget increases for the construction of new research and production facilities. (The administration listed another $100 billion to provide for delivery vehicles – missiles, bombers, and subs.)

However, GAO’s findings raise serious concerns about the accuracy of this ten-year budget. GAO concluded that NNSA lacks necessary information to adequately justify proposed budget increases and that NNSA has not conducted a “bottom-up approach” for assessing current total costs within the nuclear weapons complex.  It is unclear if the classified version of this report contains any more details than the limited numbers provided in the one-page summary, increasing concerns about the accuracy of the estimate.

NNSA states it is in the process of implementing GAO’s recommendations. Perhaps the most important of these is that NNSA will require contractors to consistently collect information on the total costs to operate and maintain facilities and weapons and to report those costs.  This is a good start, but more needs to be done. NNSA should release a detailed, declassified version of its 10-year budget plan. If there is not enough information to accurately create a measurable 10-year budget, Congress should request a new ten-year plan, based on GAO best practices for budgeting and accounting.

As New START is debated—and the administration begins to think about spending more money on fewer nuclear weapons—it is hard to overestimate the importance of Congress, and the public, knowing the true costs of maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Before these programs move forward, we need to know whether they are worth the price.  Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), who originally requested the GAO report, summed it up well in a press release earlier this week, “We must have a clear picture of the total costs of maintaining an effective nuclear stockpile to be able to accurately assess current and future needs and capabilities.  We need to know exactly where the money is going and how it is being used.”