On April 5, 2009, President Barack Obama took the stage before 20,000 people in Prague's Hradcany Square to offer an ambitious global vision. "Today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons," he told the open-air audience in the former Eastern Bloc capital. "To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same."
The timing of his bold promise seemed perfect. Russia was ready to whittle down its destructive power; a year later, Obama and President Dmitri Medvedev would sign a treaty limiting both countries to 1,500 active warheads—though still enough to annihilate millions of people, a 50 percent reduction to each nation's atomic arsenal. Back home, lawmakers on Capitol Hill were scrutinizing the federal budget for unnecessary spending, and nuclear weapons no longer appeared to be off limits.
Even the military brass was moving away from relying upon nuclear deterrence. The Pentagon's 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (PDF) concluded that "[t]he massive nuclear arsenal we inherited from the Cold War era of bipolar military confrontation is poorly suited to address the challenges posed by suicidal terrorists and unfriendly regimes seeking nuclear weapons."
But shrinking America's nuclear arsenal has turned out to be far easier said than done. Despite the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) cuts, federal spending on the atomic stockpile is actually beyond Cold War levels, driven by congressional hawks and powerful nuclear labs eager to "modernize" the arsenal and fund projects that could spark a new arms race.
During the Cold War, the United States spent, on average, $35 billion a year on its nuclear weapons complex. Today, it spends an estimated $55 billion. The nuclear weapons budget is spread across the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Homeland Security, and the government doesn't publicly disclose how much it spends on its various aspects, from maintaining our nuclear arsenal to defending against other countries' nukes. Altogether, it spent at least $52.4 billion on nuclear weapons in 2008, the last year anyone attempted to piece together the total cost, according to the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. (And that doesn't include classified programs.) That was five times the size of the State Department's budget, seven times the EPA's, and 14 times what the DOE spent on everything else it does.
So why is America's nuclear capacity expanding even as it tells the world it plans to forsake its arsenal? A few little-known facts about the nuclear weapons complex provide some answers:
Nuclear secret #1: Old bombs don't die, they zombify.
The United States currently has 5,113 atomic warheads deployed in silos, bombers, and submarines across the country and the world, ready for use at a moment's notice. Under the New START treaty, 3,000 of these warheads will be taken out of deployment by 2018. The treaty also mandates deep cuts to both the United States' and Russia's nuclear-equipped bombers, submarine launchers, and ICBM silos.
In theory, warheads slated for destruction are trucked off to the Pantex plant on the sandy Staked Plains outside Amarillo, Texas. There, Department of Energy contractors inspect and gingerly denude them of their non-nuclear components and disassemble their "physics package," a witch's brew of high explosives surrounding cores of highly radioactive uranium, plutonium, tritium, and deuterium. Each of these hot, unstable materials is separated and put in storage—some will be carted off for commercial refining, some kept in reserve in case more bombs ever need to be built. The entire process is like performing a ballet blindfolded, in 300-degree heat, on a stage where one slip could kill all the performers.
During the much of the '90s, the United States took apart its old nukes at a brisk pace—about 1,300 a year. But the process has slowed to a trickle during the past decade. Now a backlog of more than 3,000 warheads sits at the Pantex plant, which may soon run out of storage space altogether. Hans Kristensen, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Nuclear Information Project, says that this means most newly retired weapons will simply stay on the bases where they were deployed.
Some of these inactive "zombie" weapons sit in a state of suspended animation, ready to deploy immediately in a submarine, bomber, or silo. Others have specific components removed, though this hardware can be replaced on short notice. According to Peter Fedewa of the pro-disarmament Ploughshares Fund, that amounts to several thousand more nukes "that could be 'raised from the dead' and brought back into deployment with relative ease." (Full disclosure: Ploughshares provides funding to Mother Jones for coverage of national security.)
The New START treaty limits the US and Russia to 1,550 deployed warheads each. It doesn't, however, limit how many "nondeployed" ICBMs and sub-launched nuclear missiles a nation can keep on ice, just in case. None of these weapons are counted under New START, which means the United States has a shadow force of nuclear weapons waiting in the wings. All told, the United States has several thousand retired, almost-retired, and inactive warheads, according to the Pentagon.
Nuclear hawks in Congress have blunted New START's planned reductions by stalling dismantlement while beefing up the country's arsenal of "hedge" weapons—nuclear warheads that aren't actively deployed for war and thus aren't touched by the treaty. As Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, told an audience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in July, the stockpile of inactive atomic weapons should be seen as a deterrent, implying that if the first 5,000 or so currently deployed warheads can't deter or defeat America's enemies, the other few thousand might.