The Nuke Plan to Nowhere

The House Appropriations Committee announced today that it wants to throw away billions of your tax dollars on weapons we don't need at prices we can't afford. How has it done this? By voting to exempt spending on nuclear weapons from the kinds of budget cuts that will be imposed on other agencies under the sequester.

At an estimated $640 billion over the next decade, nuclear weapons and related spending are long overdue for a strong dose of budget discipline. In fact, targeted cuts to our overstocked nuclear arsenal will make us all safer while saving tens of billions of dollars in the process.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) -- the agency that oversees the nuclear warhead complex -- may well be the most bloated agency in the federal government. It has been tagged by the Government Accountability Office as being at high risk for "waste, fraud and abuse."

NNSA may well take the prize for the highest proportion of projects that are over budget, behind schedule, and, in most cases, unneeded in the first place. At the top of the list is the B61-12 nuclear bomb. The B61 program is now estimated to cost $10 billion by the time it's done, producing bombs that literally cost more than their weight in gold. To add insult to injury, a primary mission for the B61 -- deployment to Europe -- is a legacy of the Cold War that bears no relationship to current defense needs.

Running neck-and-neck with the B61 program for the honor of least worthwhile project at the highest cost is something called the MOX facility. Although it sounds like a disease, perhaps a modern variation on chicken pox, the MOX plant is actually a factory intended to take plutonium waste from the nuclear bomb complex and turn it into fuel for civilian nuclear reactors. By their own admission, administration officials are "reluctant" to put a price tag on the project, which the Government Accountability Office indicates has jumped most recently from "only" $4.8 billion to $6.8 billion or more. Tom Clements of the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability has suggested that the full lifetime cost of the MOX plant could exceed $20 billion. And all of this for a program that is going to produce fuel that may or may not have a paying customer when all is said and done.

Other horror stories of overpriced and unnecessary projects at the NNSA abound. In April 2011, well before the onslaught of sequester-mania, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability put out a handy report called "Nuclear Reality Checks" that highlighted no fewer than nine multibillion-dollar projects at NNSA that should be either scaled back or eliminated altogether.

If Congress wants to cut the deficit intelligently, it should be finding ways to eliminate unnecessary and poorly managed projects in the nuclear weapons complex, not shielding nuclear programs from budget reductions.