Friday, August 6, 2010

The Real Price of Nuclear Weapons

By Adrianna Wolaver

If you ask an economist for a price, their answer will not only include the number where the supply and demand curves intersect, but the opportunity cost for those resources. The concept is simple; what else could have been done with that time and/or money? That’s the opportunity cost. Recently, Stephen Shwartz, author of Atomic Audit, has put the price tag of the entire pursuit of nuclear deterrence since 1940, including development, maintenance, and expansion, at $7.5 trillion.[1] Today we spend $55 billion annually on nuclear weapons and related programs.[2] To some people this may seem like a reasonable price for “nuclear security” and global military dominance, but I want to challenge you to think about what else that money could do.

There are eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set forth in 1990 by the United Nations designed to substantially improve the quality of life and safety of our planet. The eight goals are as follows:
  1. eradicating extreme poverty and hunger by halving the proportion of people living on less than $1 a day, 
  2. achieving universal primary education, 
  3. promoting gender equality and empowering women, 
  4. reducing child mortality by two-thirds, 
  5. improving maternal health by reducing maternal mortality ratios by two-thirds, 
  6. combating HIV and AIDS, malaria and other diseases, 
  7. ensuring environmental sustainability, and 
  8. creating a global partnership for development.[3] 
The MDGs' 2015 deadline is fast approaching and many of the goals are far from being reached. It is possible, however, to reach these goals with $40-60 billion per year in foreign aid. [4] In order to put our nuclear weapons budget into perspective, I am comparing the United States’ annual nuclear budget of $55 billion with the foreign aid that is needed annually in order to reach the MGDs. Let’s close our eyes and imagine that we could redirect $55 billion a year to the MDGs.
$55 billion annually over five years would:

· Lift 500 million people out of poverty

· Allow 30 million more children to survive past their fifth birthday

· Save 2 million mothers who would die from complications during childbirth

· Supply 350 million people with clean drinking water

· Give 650 million people access to basic sanitation

· Provide140 million children with proper nutrition[5]

Over 1.6 billion lives will be immediately improved by these direct efforts and countless future generations will reap the benefits.

Valuable insights can be gained by comparing costs of development and nuclear security. For example, in Ghana around $80 in annual per capita public investments would meet all MDG targets.[6] Over twice that amount is spent per capita annually in the U.S on nuclear weapons programs. Another mind-boggling example is the comparison between building a girls’ school in Banaw Langla, Pakistan for $72,000[7] and building the new Honeywell nuclear weapons parts plant in Kansas City, Missouri for a staggering $815 million.[8] Girl’s schools are one the most cost effective ways to improve development and ultimately reduce extremist tendencies in nations like Pakistan.[9] You could build 11,000 schools in Pakistan for $815 million. What is more cost effective - changing the landscape of a society susceptible to extremist violence or building more nuclear weapons to deter them? One will inspire an ameliorative change through education, while the other will escalate violence, perpetuate the military-industrial complex and continue to drain resources. One must ask the question: are we allocating our resources in efficiently? Could there not be greater good and ultimately more security if the world was a better fed, better educated, and healthier place? Over the next 10 years, the United States will spend $18 billion annually to modernize its nuclear arsenal.[10] The same amount of money could provide a years worth of universal access to effective AIDS prevention in Africa and prevent 2.25 million new infections.[11] The cost of nuclear security is far greater than the $7.5 trillion price tag. It also includes the consequences of leaving 1.6 billion people in poverty.

We are also facing high domestic opportunity costs for our nuclear weapons programs. We are spending $800 million to develop new nuclear-capable cruise missiles; the same amount could provide one year of “Head Start,”- a comprehensive education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services for low-income children and their families - for over 95,000 children.[12] The Department of Energy requested $2 billion in the fiscal year 2011 budget for stockpile support. Alternatively, $2 billion could be used to create 58,000 education related jobs.[13] Another domestic example: the 25% projected increase, or $405 million, for stockpile support in the fiscal year 2011 is the equivalent to providing 10,432 university students with four-year scholarships.[14] Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our priorities at home and abroad.

While it is unrealistic to expect the immediate dismantling of all nuclear weapons programs, it is essential to reflect on our priorities and the most efficient use of our resources. Let these comparisons open your eyes to the vast amounts of money spent on nuclear weapons programs. Are nuclear weapons providing us with something more valuable than lifting 500 million people out of poverty or significantly improving our domestic economy? In this new era of nuclear cooperation we can begin to reconsider the costs and benefits of these weapons. How much are we willing to forego to maintain weapons of mass destruction: our domestic education system, a worldwide reduction of poverty, ending epidemics like AIDS? Only after our nation is free of nuclear weapons can we redirect our resources to pursue positive initiatives.


[1] Joseph Cirincione, "Lessons Lost," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,
61, no. 6 (November 2005): 42-53

[2] $55,000,000,000/307,006,550= 179.149272

[3] JD Sachs and JW McArthur, “The Millennium Project: a Plan for Meeting the Millennium Development Goals.” The Lancet, 365 (Jan. 2005): 347-53.

[4] World Bank, “The Costs of Achieving the Millennium Development Goals,” The World Bank, www.worldbank.org/‌html/‌extdr/‌mdgassessment.pdf, (accessed 16 July 2010).

[5] JD Sachs and JW McArthur, “The Millennium Project: a Plan for Meeting the Millennium Development Goals.” 352.

[6] Ibid., 351.

[7] UNICEF, “Inauguration of the Banaw Langla School in Pakistan-administered Kashmir,” United Nations, 19 March 2009, http://www.unicef.org/infobycountry /pakistan_48676.html

[8] Kevin Collison, “Private Financing Expected to Flow in June for Honeywell Nuclear Weapons Parts Plant,” The Kansas City Star, 9 June 2010, http://www.kansascity.com /2010/07/09/2073863/honeywells-contract-with-nuclear.html (accessed 10 July 2010).

[9] Isobel Coleman, “The Payoff From Women’s Rights,” Foreign Affairs, 83, no. 3 (May & June 2004): 3.

[10] Walter Pincus, “Nuclear Complex Upgrades Related to START Treaty to Cost $180 Billion,” The Washington Post, 14 May 2010, A02.

[11] The World Bank, “Executive Summary,” The World Bank’s Africa Region HIV/AIDS Agenda for Action 2007-2011, 24, June 2007.

[12] American Friends Service Committee, “Toward a Nuclear Free Future: Making Sense of Nuclear Weapons.” American Friends Service Committee, 3 June 2010, http://afsc.org/document/toward-nuclear-free-future-making-sense-nuclear-weapons-2010, (accessed 11 July 2010).

[13] American Friends Service Committee, “Toward a Nuclear Free Future: Making Sense of Nuclear Weapons.” American Friends Service Committee.

[14] Ibid.

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