Why the U.S. is spending $1 trillion on nukes

October 21, 2014


Here’s a fun post to take your mind off Ebola and Washington’s myriad foreign policy problems.

A mere five years ago, in the announcement awarding President Obama the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said it “attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

So for many, the Sept. 21 New York Times Headline, “U.S. Ramping Up Major Renewal in Nuclear Arms“, seemed, err, at odds with the hope and change we’d been promised.

What’s going on? Could there be a pragmatic explanation, or is this just good, old-fashioned bloodthirstiness?  Adam Mount at the Council on Foreign Relations calls the administration’s record on nuclear issues “deeply ambivalent,” but explains that the nation’s nuclear arsenal is becoming obsolete and that “the United States is preparing to upgrade nearly every bomber, submarine, missile, and warhead in the arsenal in the next decades.” This modernization, he adds, “will drive the cost of the arsenal 75 percent higher in the next ten years than the last, and up to $1 trillion over the next thirty years.”

As this Reuters graphic shows, the Congressional Budget Office estimates the 10-year costs of maintaining and modernizing our existing arsenal at $355 billion, with another $215 billion slated for “other nuclear-related activities.”

The Times story reveals some pretty alarming anecdotal details about our crumbling nuclear facilities, but National Nuclear Security Administration numbers quantify the scope of the problem:

  • 43,000 employees spread over eight weapons facilities
  • 2540 total lane-miles of paved roads—nearly the distance from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles
  • 275,000 total lane-miles of unpaved roads—enough for 11 laps around the equator
  • 8,000,000 feet of fencing—enough to encircle the D.C. Beltway 24 times
  • 2160 square miles of land—about the size of Delaware
  • 38.5 million square feet of facility space—six Pentagons worth
  • 9.5 trillion BTUs of energy consumed annually—enough to power 250,000 homes
  • 15.2 million square feet of hazardous materials—enough to fill 15 Washington Monuments

So while it’s true that a trillion dollars over thirty years sounds aggressive, the silver lining is that much of that money is going to ensure that our decaying infrastructure doesn’t harm Americans on their own homeland.

See, now Ebola and ISIS are the least of your worries!

This post has been corrected to reflect the fact that U.S. nuclear facilities are surrounded by 8,000,000 feet of fencing, not 8,000,000 miles of fencing.







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We don’t have money for education or medicine but the military always gets a blank check. We still occupy Japan and Germany 70 years later; does anyone think we are ever leaving Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc?

Posted by anarcurt | Report as abusive

Please check your math. If it takes 8,000,000 miles of fence and you can go around the D.C. Beltway 24 times with the fence this means that the Beltway is 13 times the circumference of the Earth (25,000). No wonder nothing gets done in Washington.

Lets look at it another way, the fence could go around the earth 320 times. It could even make it to the moon and back 32 times. That D.C. Beltway must be a lot larger than I had it figured for.

I guess you cannot believe everything you read.

Posted by Renhoz | Report as abusive

Hadn’t realized the DC beltway was over 333,000 miles long.

Posted by JPro78946 | Report as abusive

Much of this is mandated by treaty. It’s easy to criticize nukes, except that since 1945, none have been fired in anger, a record unmatched by even biowar. Also of note is that Britain, France, Germany and Russia have trudged through these 7 decades without firing a shot at one another. Like nuclear energy, the nuclear weapons program boasts a zero casualty rate in the U.S., a record unmatched by any industrial process in the country. Sometimes no news is good news.

Posted by Bagehot | Report as abusive

So long as they don’t connect any of the nuclear lauch devices to the internet (so no hackers) and so long as they don’t use computers to automate any of the nuclear launch devices (so no program bugs), civilization might be able to survive this upgrade.

Posted by nose2066 | Report as abusive

HOW ELSE could we make the elite rich besides all of these high dollar engineering projects?

Posted by Factoidz | Report as abusive


It is our sons and daughters we ask to defend this country. Since WW II the United States has been able to put on the battlefield, WHEN NECESSARY, the best of the best. Would you have that any different?

If and when the United States comes off second best in a major challenge, the rest of the world can kiss any hope of self improvement or self determination goodbye. Is that the world you want?

People like YOU would advocate the military budget go to feed the world’s hungry. That’s a no-win proposition, since the number of humans in third world hell holes traditionally expands to meet the available food supply (even though the population increase is mostly those with no land, no money, no skills, no job, no education, and no hope of any of these things). They just push their progeny with distended bellies in front of the cameras covered with flies and demand the rest of the world step forward to clean up a mess they did not make.

Of maybe you would prefer to put all that money into the educational establishment? Being smart or educated didn’t help European Jews before Hitler’s Magistrates or soldiers, which is precisely the future humanity would face without a strong U.S. military. Please.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Wow. 8,000,000 miles of fence. Why bother circling DC when you could circle the entire US about 800 times?

Posted by sandy12345 | Report as abusive

Upgrading our arsenal is necessary, but we need to downsize as well. Our warheads are mostly modern, our bombs not so much. 2 out of 3 of our delivery systems are 60’s technology. Most of our deterrence should be in nuclear submarines. Get rid of land based ICBMs altogether, and bombers should be mostly stand off cruise missile launchers. BTW, I’m an AF vet. This would be the most cost effective way for deterrence.

1500 warheads should be enough to eliminate the entire planet at least twice over.And get rid of those darn dial a yield nukes. If I’m paying for 400 KT weapons, I want every kiloton. Nukes should be big enough to deter the Ollie Norths from using them. 100 KT minimum.

Posted by alowl | Report as abusive

How can anything be taken seriously by Reuters when such a stupid error of math has been made as pointed out by other commenters? It can’t.

Posted by WayneMargot | Report as abusive