Committee members demand accountability for nuclear weapon costs

 In Nuclear Weapons

In response to misplaced concern about the long-term reliability of the nuclear arsenal, the Obama administration sent Congress a budget request for the nuclear weapons complex bigger than anything the nukes-loving Bush administration tried to push through. Despite scientific evidence that current programs can ensure a safe and reliable stockpile, the administration is increasing nuclear weapons complex funding by 10% to appease critics of broader nonproliferation efforts like the New START agreement and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In a congressionally mandated report, the administration announced its intent to spend $180 billion over the next ten years to “modernize” the nuclear weapons complex and delivery systems. This massive spending contradicts the vision of moving toward a world free of nuclear weapons, and is disconcerting as domestic spending programs like education are subject to a spending freeze. In this context, a new GAO report about cost overruns by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is particularly alarming.

Chairman Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Ranking Member Michael Turner (R-Ohio) of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee demanded support for recommendations of the GAO report, which showed that costs of nuclear weapons programs are essentially unknown.

According to Subcommittee Chairman Jim Langevin:

We must have a clear picture of the total costs of maintaining an effective nuclear stockpile to be able to accurately assess current and future needs and capabilities.  We need to know exactly where the money is going and how it is being used.  I am pleased that National Nuclear Security Administration has agreed with the GAO’s recommendations and has already begun to implement these accounting changes to improve their financial tracking and budgeting systems.

In its defense, NNSA claims that total costs of nuclear weapons programs are tough to calculate because of disparities between sites’ accounting practices. But without basic information like estimated total costs, many nuclear weapons programs operate with out-of-control budgets.

The reality is that NNSA programs are approved by Congress based on their projected costs. Therefore it’s in NNSA’s best interests to intentionally low-ball costs to obtain funding.

For example, contractors admitted that congressionally directed funding for six sites in 2009 totaled approximately $558.6 million, but their estimated 2009 expenditures totaled approximately $1.1 billion.

Ranking Member Michael Turner emphasizes that time is of the essence for budget transparency because Congress faces the largest nuclear weapons budget in history:

Having GAO’s independent assessment is particularly timely given NNSA’s release last week of its Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan.  NNSA plans to seek over $29 billion over the next four fiscal years and it is absolutely essential that NNSA be able to justify this increase and explain how it will benefit stockpile stewardship and management.

Here are the report’s conclusions:

  • NNSA cannot accurately identify the total costs to operate and maintain weapons facilities and infrastructure because of differences in sites’ cost accounting practices
  • NNSA does not fully identify or estimate the total costs of the products and capabilities supported through the Stockpile Services R&D and production activities.
  • Reducing stockpile size is unlikely to significantly affect NNSA’s… costs because a sizable portion of these costs is fixed to maintain base nuclear weapons capabilities.
  • Without complete and reliable information about these costs, NNSA lacks information that could help justify planned budget increases or target cost savings opportunities.
  • NNSA has efforts underway that, if fully implemented, will provide more accurate information on costs related to maintaining U.S. nuclear weapons.

This is not the first time shoddy accounting practices have concealed the true costs of nuclear weapons programs. Last January, an earlier GAO report revealed that accounting practices of the Department of Energy grossly underestimated the costs of construction projects and environmental cleanup projects related to nuclear weapon.

Think of the situation between Congress and NNSA as hiring a plumber to fix your kitchen sink. The plumber says it will cost you $100. But they come back with a bill for $1000. Would you just blindly pay the bill?

Of course not, and neither should Congress. In order to reveal the true costs of America’s nuclear weapons complex, the latest report must not be ignored. The NNSA should not be allowed to benefit from sloppy accounting. Increased spending requires increased transparency. Congress should not give the NNSA a single penny in increases until they can show their commitment to honesty and transparency in accounting.

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