U.S. nuclear forces could cost about $494 billion during a 10-year period if current plans are followed, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.
The CBO is required by law to estimate the 10-year costs every two years. The new estimate is $494 billion for work between 2019 to 2028, the CBO said in a report published this month. That’s an average of just under $50 billion a year.
The Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge participates in the nuclear weapons work along with other U.S. Department of Energy sites and the U.S. Department of Defense.
The CBO said nuclear weapons have been an important part of U.S. national security since they were developed during World War II. Oak Ridge was the main production site for the top-secret project to build those first weapons, and Y-12 continues to work on nuclear weapons. One modernization program for the W76-1 warhead was recently completed, and another for the B61-12 bomb has started.
The CBO said nuclear forces were central to U.S. defense policy during the Cold War, and a large arsenal was built.
Since then, though, nuclear forces have figured less prominently in defense policy than conventional forces have, and the United States has not built any new nuclear weapons or delivery systems for many years, the CBO said.
“The nation’s current nuclear forces are reaching the end of their service life,” the CBO said. Those forces include submarines that launch ballistic missiles (SSBNs), land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), long-range bomber aircraft, shorter-range tactical aircraft carrying bombs, and the nuclear warheads that those delivery systems carry.
“Over the next two decades, essentially all of those components of nuclear forces will have to be refurbished or replaced with new systems if the United States is to continue fielding those capabilities,” the CBO said.
To help extend the service life of some weapons, the National Nuclear Security Administration, the part of DOE that oversees nuclear weapons work, has had four modernization programs under way as the U.S. nuclear stockpile has gotten smaller and older.
A “Nuclear Posture Review” released by the U.S. Department of Defense in February 2018 proposed several new nuclear capabilities, which have been the subject of some debate, the CBO said. They include a low-yield W76-2 warhead to be deployed on submarine-launched ballistic missiles, a new sea-launched nuclear cruise missile, and an expanded capacity to produce plutonium pits, at least 80 per year by 2030, possibly in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina.
The CBO’s estimate of 10-year costs for nuclear forces includes $432 billion for the following items:
- $234 billion for strategic nuclear delivery systems and weapons. This spending would include Department of Defense funding for strategic nuclear delivery systems (the three types of systems that can deliver long-range nuclear weapon: SSBNs, ICBMs, and long-range bombers); DOE’s funding for activities related to the warheads used by those systems: and DOE’s funding for the nuclear reactors that power SSBNs.
- $106 billion for DOE’s nuclear weapons laboratories and their supporting activities. This would include funding for activities at nuclear weapons laboratories and production facilities that cannot be directly attributed to a specific type of warhead but are related to maintaining current and future stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
- $77 billion for Department of Defense command, control, communications, and early-warning systems. These systems allow operators to communicate with nuclear forces, issue commands that control their use, detect incoming attacks, and rule out false alarms, the CBO said.
- $15 billion for tactical nuclear delivery systems and weapons. This would include Department of Defense funding for tactical aircraft that can deliver nuclear weapons over shorter ranges; DOE’s funding for activities related to the warheads that those aircraft carry; funding for the proposed new submarine-launched nuclear cruise missile (SLCM); and funding for a warhead for that missile to carry.
The remaining $62 billion of the CBO’s $494 billion 10-year estimate is for possible additional costs the could be incurred during the next decade if the costs of nuclear programs exceed planned amounts at about the same rates as similar programs have in the past.
The spending at Y-12 is a small part of the overall spending on the nation’s nuclear forces. At last check, Y-12 had an annual budget of more than $1.5 billion. The 811-acre plant works on or helps with uranium components and secondaries (the second stage in modern thermonuclear weapons) and lithium and tritium production for nuclear weapons, and it helps provide fuel for naval nuclear reactors. Y-12 is also involved in nuclear nonproliferation programs and other work, such as, to cite one example, a project to test whether a nuclear energy source could provide power for space exploration.
The $494 billion 10-year nuclear force cost estimate released by the CBO this month is 23 percent higher than its 2017 estimate. The 2017 estimate was $400 billion between 2017 and 2026. The CBO provides reasons for the new higher estimate. Among them: The new estimate includes inflation, two later and more expensive years in the nation’s nuclear modernization programs, new modernization programs and weapons, and more well-defined plans for nuclear command-and-control systems.
See the CBO report here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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