Nuclear Debt

The other day I heard something in the news where someone was talking about the need to have all the world super powers lay down their nuclear arms.  They talked about the peace and understanding everyone would instantly have.   Sadly it’s all either a lie or people not understanding world politics/history.

The facts are there for everyone to see, since the advent of the atomic bomb, the world has seen one of the most peaceful times (as looked at from a global war perspective) in recorded history.  It has come at a terrible price, a price that has been paid, and is still being paid around cleanup, maintenance, security.

The articles about this often end there.   Saying the only reason to keep them is to preserve the uneasy, but extremely effective threat of the unthinkable as a method of peace.

My comment and thoughts on this goes one step further.  I’ve read dozens of books about the fascinating concepts behind economics, physics, theory, reasons, effects, political posturing, etc… of nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapons complex in the US and former USSR.   One number in all that writing stands out as strangely familiar…

$8.7 trillion.

That is the amount of US tax payer money the US spent researching, developing, testing, and producing these icons, and artifacts. (A weapon has an actual use, Nuclear weapons are largely icons used for bartering, negotiations, and intimidation.)

US Debt: ~$16 trillion.

 This is a very interesting concept that if the US never spent money on the development and deployment of this technology we could largely be at half our national debt.   Of course that’s not true, and who knows what kind or how many other wars we would have been pulled into without that investment.  Also knowing that 4 other countries were researching the same weapons at the same time shows that we would have been pulled into this spending war sooner or later.

It’s all guesses, but you still can’t ignore that the US tax payer is holding the debt in one way or another for an almost $9 Trillion investment.  Some of that is sitting squarely in that US debt bucket particularly from the 70s – 90s.  We carry this burden, why shouldn’t we keep the one and only perk that comes from owning these weapons:  international restraint.

Arms Reduction, Disarmament, Deactivation:

I can understand arms reductions, testing bans, and restrictions on deployments.  These make sense as these weapons are no longer considered front line, tactical advantages in warfare.  The environmental impacts, and the security risks of having these tools of war scattered around the world are very real.  A nuke sitting on top of a missile in North Dakota is every bit as intimidating as one sitting in Turkey, Western Europe, or the Pacific.

What I cannot understand is the discussion of total disarmament.


Why I think Nuclear Disarmament is absurd – We will just build them again, for even more debt and take more money away from the people and infrastructure that run this country.  We spent $9 Trillion dollars building these tools, in today’s dollars to rebuild that arsenal from scratch would cost the same if not more after a full disarmament.

Think we wouldn’t need to rebuild them?  The second there is a threat from a nation against the US interest that are so great that conventional warfare is ineffective, what other options does the US have?  In 1945 the US used the only weapon it could imagine to stop the need for a ground invasion and the loss of over 1 million US soldiers.  That build up took decades of research to make it even possible – today we have the concepts, science, engineering, and materials understood, but no longer the industrial base to produce them.

Why wouldn’t the US or any government use the technology it has available to protect itself.  Deactivating nuclear weapons only takes the sensitive nuclear material away from the delivery device, and in most cases away from any explosive charge to detonate it.   The Uranium, Plutonium, Beryllium, and other critical materials all still exist, and are stored in bunkers just waiting to be reassembled or in national stockpiles.  Deactivation does not equal disarmament, it just takes longer to build the bomb components backup.

Total disarmament takes that material and mixes it into reactor grade fuels or other alloys to be “burned” in civilian reactors.  To reuse that material in an effective bomb would take industrial complexes to separate the fuel.  Those industrial complexes in the US have been long decommissioned, or are used exclusively for waste refinement now.   So to rebuild/activate production would require massive industrial investments at the cost of the tax payer.  Most of the $9 trillion was spent on the industrial complex that built the weapons.

When provoked, we rush things-

We are not producing ‘new’ nuclear weapons anymore.  We’ve (as far as anyone knows) haven’t made more than a demonstration (to validate the mfg. process) new nuclear core for a weapon since ~ 1992 with production ending at Rock Flats just outside Denver, CO.  The demonstration pit was built at Lawrence Livermore Labs, making it the only location in the US that has the tools to manufacture a nuclear trigger/pit for a bomb now.  And that is at a laboratory scale, not a manufacturing scale.

During the cold war, we produced almost 32,000 weapons from 1945 – 1992.   That is roughly 2 weapons a day for 47 years. We built a dozen highly sophisticated industrial and research sites across the country to achieve that production rate.  To get that kind of capacity and speed in buildup corners were cut.  Massive ones. 

The environmental destruction in Hanford Washington, Oak Ridge Tennessee, Rocky Flats Colorado, and Savannah River Site in Georgia, is profound.  Damage is still occurring due to toxins just now making their way to the water tables.    Most of these sites have been completely removed or all of the cold war era production facilities are gone.

Reason they are gone?  They were dangerous and build quickly for one purpose – mass production.    We did it – we build the worlds first production line style industrial complex focused on weapons of mass destruction.  In the end we came to a point that we didn’t need to produce dozens of weapons a month, and we could start cleaning up our mess.

But we still paid for it all, and we would do it again the second we needed to and pay a far higher price.

 The core of this is –

  • We already paid for the ~5400 warheads we still have in the national stock pile.
  • Most of the infrastructure is gone that produced the weapons and materials in the 50s – 90s.  A complete industrial rebuilding would be needed if we were to resume production on any scale.
  •  We are still paying for their maintenance and security.  But have decommissioned over 25,000 largely redundant warheads to avoid the maintenance and security costs.
  • We are paying the price for our ignorance toward safety, and planning for the industrial complex – a cost that will linger regardless if every person on earth agrees to never use or make a weapon ever again.  Cleanup costs on their own may eclipse much of the cost that was in the initial build out of nuclear weapons.
  • Many players on the world stage have developed, deployed, or researched these weapons.   Ridding ourselves of them would leave us having to sit under the assumption everyone else is working in good faith and trust everyone.
  • Clandestine nuclear programs like in Israel have resulted in hundreds of nuclear weapons, but with no official statement, or evidence of deployment. If everyone says they will disarm, who actually will?
  • Nations under stress, or feeling threatened by others always look for a way to achieve military parity or superiority by any means.

So with money in mind… accept we built these terrible devices, they protect us just by their presence every single day (not from all threats but largely strategic ones), and we would build them again at great cost no matter what if forced into a corner. A corner that hasn’t existed since the advent of the nuclear weapon.

Reduce, but don’t disarm.



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