from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2009, Issue No. 3
January 12, 2009

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Most U.S. Government spending on nuclear weapons-related programs is unclassified. But it is functionally secret since such spending is widely dispersed across many programs in several agencies and it is not formally tracked or reported.

A new study prepared for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace estimated that the cost of U.S. nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs exceeded $52 billion last year.

"That's a floor, not a ceiling," said Stephen I. Schwartz, who led the study with Deepti Choubey. The estimate does not include the costs of classified nuclear weapons programs or nuclear-related intelligence programs, among other limiting factors.

The $52 billion figure far exceeds the total annual budget for international diplomacy and foreign assistance ($39.5 billion) and comprises roughly 10% of all national defense spending.

Because nuclear weapons costs are not officially tracked, it has been difficult or impossible to perform "cost-benefit" analyses of nuclear policies or to debate priorities among competing nuclear weapons programs. Yet such priorities naturally emerge, undebated.

Thus, the majority of nuclear weapons spending (55.5%) is allocated towards upgrading, operating and sustaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal. A much smaller fraction (10%) is devoted to controlling the spread of nuclear weapons and technology, the study found.

"The disparity suggests that preserving and enhancing nuclear forces is far more important than preventing nuclear proliferation," said Mr. Schwartz.

The authors urge that a formal accounting of nuclear weapons spending be conducted by the government and reported to Congress and the public in order to provide greater clarity. And they recommend that an increased fraction of nuclear security spending be directed towards preventing nuclear proliferation.

The full report and the underlying data are available from the Carnegie Endowment. See "Nuclear Security Spending: Assessing Costs, Examining Priorities," by Stephen I. Schwartz with Deepti Choubey, January 2009.


"In May 1974, the U.S. government received its first serious nuclear threat," recalls author Jeffrey T. Richelson. "A letter demanding that $200,00 be left at a particular location arrived at the FBI. Failure to comply, it claimed, would result in the explosion of a nuclear bomb somewhere in Boston."

The threat was soon exposed as a hoax, but it prompted the creation of a then-secret organization originally known as the Nuclear Emergency Search (later: Source) Team, or NEST, which would be responsible for the "search and identification of lost or stolen nuclear weapons and special nuclear materials, bomb threats, and radiation dispersal threats."

The history of that organization is unveiled by Richelson in his new book "Defusing Armageddon: Inside NEST, America's Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad" (W.W. Norton, January 2009).

The mission of NEST is inherently gripping, though its story is not consistently dramatic. It is full of false alarms and potential worst-case scenarios that thankfully never materialize. With the cooperation of some NEST veterans, Richelson provides a painstakingly thorough account, including a previously unpublished list of 103 nuclear extortion threat events from 1970-1993.

Some of NEST's exploits were front-page news in their time. I thought I had read (or written) everything worth reading about the 1978 reentry of the Soviet nuclear reactor-powered Cosmos 954 satellite, which rained radioactive debris over northwest Canada. But Richelson, an exceptionally skilled researcher who is a fellow at the National Security Archive, uncovered some interesting and unfamiliar accounts of that episode, known as Operation Morning Light, in which more than 100 NEST personnel participated.

The uncertain potential for nuclear terrorism in the post-9/11 era, including the possibility of deliberate dispersal of radioactive material in a "dirty bomb," poses increased challenges to NEST's capacity to quickly detect and respond to such events.

"But like many forms of insurance or protection that may never be needed or may not protect against all threats, NEST is a capability that, had it not been established in 1974, would have been considered essential to create in 2001," Richelson concludes.


Science and technology export controls that are rooted in Cold War geopolitical realities are now both anachronistic and counterproductive, a report from the National Research Council said last week.

"As currently structured, many of these controls undermine our national and homeland security and stifle American engagement in the global economy, and in science and technology," the report said.

The authors called on the Obama Administration to promptly revise export control policies by issuing an executive order that affirms "a strong presumption for openness." They urged that economic competitiveness be factored into export control decisions, that controls be reviewed annually and rescinded when they can no longer be justified, and that new procedures be established for adjudicating disputes. Perpetuation of existing policies, the report warned, would be "a self-destructive strategy for obsolence and declining economic competitiveness."

The report makes a compelling case that current export control procedures and visa policies for foreign scientists are arbitrary, incoherent and even dangerous. (Perhaps not coincidentally, export controls have also proved ineffective in preventing transfers of sensitive military technologies to Iran, as the Washington Post reported on January 11.)

By imposing ill-founded restrictions on technology exports, the report says the U.S. government not only reduces U.S. economic vitality but paradoxically stimulates sources of competing technology abroad. "We are, in effect, actively nurturing foreign competitors for our own goods and services."

The authors endorse the need to exercise controls on weapons, narrowly defined, as well as on classified technologies, and other particularly sensitive systems. But they say any control on other technologies should be subject to review and cancellation every twelve months unless an affirmative case can be made to continue it for another year.

Visa policy is also seriously twisted, they explain, inhibiting collaboration with foreign experts and absorption of foreign students. "Current law has the perverse effect of permitting foreign students to enter the United States only if they can prove to a consular officer's satisfaction that they will take what they learn home with them.... [A]nyone who admits that he or she might want to stay in the United States and contribute to this country's technological competitiveness must -- by law -- be denied entry."

The report's critique of controls on science and technology will seem familiar to students and critics of classification policy. The outmoded premises, the unintended consequences and the sustained failure to achieve meaningful reform are common to both sets of problems. And just as lists of technologies subject to export controls are infrequently updated so as to remove obsolete items from unnecessary controls, a large fraction of agency classification guides likewise go unreviewed, thereby perpetuating overclassification.

But while acknowledging that "the classification system needs an intensive review and overhaul," the authors add that "that is not the subject of this report."

The report criticizes "the marked inability of recent Congresses to address this issue" and therefore directs its recommendations to the incoming Obama Administration. As if to confirm the authors' skepticism about Congress, the House Science and Technology Committee said in a press release that the Committee "will be examining" the new report closely "over the coming months." But the authors aren't asking for further examinations. They want their recommendations implemented "as one of the first orders of business in January 2009."

See "Beyond 'Fortress America': National Security Controls on Science and Technology in a Globalized World," National Research Council, January 2009.


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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