U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project

This project was completed in August 1998 and resulted in the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 edited by Stephen I. Schwartz. These project pages are only occassionally updated and should be considered historical.

America's Nuclear Arsenal: $5.5 Trillion Well-Spent

The Hill—July 8, 1998

By David Silverberg

Just how much has the United States spent on its nuclear weapons and everything associated with them?

For anyone who has ever delved into government cost accounting, you know how monumental a task it is to determine the government's cost of anything. There's the issue of then-year versus current-year dollars, varying rates of inflation, and if you go back far enough, shifting fiscal years. Add to that the kind of secrecy, compartmentalization and bureaucracy that prevails in national security matters and you are left with a true Gordian knot.

That's why a new book—

Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940

—is so remarkable. Issued on June 30 by the Brookings Institution Press, its editor, Stephen Schwartz, director of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Project and a visiting scholar at Brookings, and his team set out to determine the comprehensive costs of America's nuclear weapons program from 1940 to 1996, including the cost of research and development, production, deployment, delivery systems, infrastructure, storage and cleanup. (To view parts of it online, go to



It took four years of sifting through government records, many of them previously classified, and doing rigorous analysis to come up with the bottom line: $5.5 trillion dollars. If future cleanup, stockpiling and dismantlement is included, that rises to $5.8 trillion. Even with the Cold War over, the United States is spending $35 billion a year—14 percent of the defense budget, or $96 million a day—on nuclear efforts of which about $25 billion goes for operation and maintenance of the nuclear arsenal. The rest is spent on cleanup, arms control verification, and ballistic missile defense research.

Even by government standards, that's a lot of money. Schwartz pointed out, and the media conveyed, the fact that this "exceeded the combined total federal spending on education, training, employment, and social services; agriculture; natural resources and the environment; general science and space research; community and regional development (including disaster relief); law enforcement; and energy production and regulation." The uncoordinated and fragmentary manner in which the nuclear arsenal was produced and funded, with interservice rivalries, secrecy, failed projects and duplication, drove up the cost.

This is true enough as far as it goes and Schwartz and his team have done a signal service in working through these numbers and putting the nuclear arsenal in fiscal perspective. But the work, and the conclusions, also have to be put into historical context.

The very fact that Schwartz was able to conduct this kind of survey is the result of the fact that the nuclear arsenal did in fact do its intended job:

It deterred the Soviets and any other potential adversary.

It kept the United States and its allies safe from aggression, preserving a government that could make expenditures on education, training, employment and a thousand and one civil pursuits.

Only the successful conclusion Cold War makes possible a survey of this sort. Only with the luxury of peace and a general turn toward economic pursuits are analysts prompted to view the nuclear arsenal from a financial perspective. During the depths of the Cold War, the arsenal had to be judged from the standpoint of threat, response and national security. Was the arsenal adequate? That was never entirely clear during the Cold War.

With the benefit of hindsight and objectivity, the waste, duplication and occasional foolishness become obvious. During the conflict, however, decisions were made on closely-held intelligence in an atmosphere of tension, ambiguity and fear. The money may not always have been well spent, but it is a good thing it was spent.

Perhaps the most important result of this work are Schwartz's conclusions: There should be an annual audit of the nuclear arsenal and its costs, and the President should play a more active role in formulating nuclear weapons policy and requirements. Schwartz also recommends greater public access to nuclear records. At a time when there is little urgency and reform can proceed calmly, these are salutary recommendations that Congress should heed.

The nuclear arsenal has been an object of controversy from the day it was created more than half a century ago. Schwartz's findings will not end its controversial nature. But he has certainly added clarity and comprehension to a debate that is vital to the future of the country.

David Silverberg is president of Silverberg Independent Media.