Nuclear weapons are surrounded by secrecy, and that secrecy extends to the financing of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems—what could be called the nuclear economy. Nuclear weapons expenditures are often hidden within shady categories in the military budget. You find more information about economic consequences here.
In the US, nuclear weapons spending is part of the budgets of both the Defense Department and the Department of Energy, making the expenditures all the more difficult to trace. Some older numbers and data are available, but the officially available information on nuclear weapons expenditures is very limited. When we realize the amount of dollars or Euros being spent, it is easy to understand why governments want to keep quiet about it.
The United States and the United Kingdom do publish some official accounts of their nuclear weapons spending. But researchers doubt that the total amounts are always given. There is some public access to these budgets in the United States, the UK, and France, which makes it possible for independent researchers to identify many of the costs of the nuclear weapons. Nevertheless, this is a difficult task. The costs related to nuclear weapons can be widely dispersed across many programs in the budget and may be hidden under obscure or misleading headings. In this way, they are ‘functionally secret’. Some types of equipment, such as aircraft, can be used for carrying both conventional bombs and atomic bombs (so-called dual use), which makes it even more difficult to calculate the actual costs of the nuclear weapons.
For the other nuclear-weapon states—Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea, – there is little or no access to budget information. Researchers have had to rely on cost estimates based on what is known or inferred about the nuclear weapons held by those states.
In November 2014, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that the Pentagon plans to spend nearly $10 billion upgrading the nation’s nuclear weapons enterprise over the next five years. “Right now, we spent about $15- $16 billion on the nuclear enterprise. We are probably looking at a 10 percent increase in the nuclear enterprise.”
Others calculate that the annual cost is more like $30-50 billion. A 2009 report by independent researchers showed that nuclear weapons had cost the US at least $52 billion in the previous year.
Other researchers have come up with slightly different estimates. The Arms Control Association, for example placed the annual cost at about $31 billion in a 2012 report.
Some of the differences may be explained by how spending is disbursed over multi-year budgets. For the ten-year period 2014 – 2023, the US Congress submitted a budget of $355 billion for the nuclear forces. The US has also adopted a modernization plan for the nuclear weapons over the next three decades that would cost $1 trillion.
In their book ‘Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of US Nuclear Weapons since 1940’ Stephen Schwartz and his colleagues calculated the cost of United States nuclear weapons programs from 1940 to 1996 as $5.5 trillion. When Schwartz further estimated the cost of storing and disposing of all nuclear waste produced during those years, ($320 billion), and the cost to scrap old nuclear weapons ($20 billion), the total cost of US nuclear weapons increased to more than $5800 billion.
According to different sources, the UK’s nuclear weapons cost about £2.0 – £2.4 billion per year.
The Trident nuclear weapons system was introduced in 1994. It is estimated that the cost of its procurement was more than £12 billion (1995 prices).
Following more than a decade of debate, the UK will decide in 2016 whether to proceed with a total renovation of the Trident system, which consists of four submarines carrying missiles armed with nuclear warheads. In 2006, a government white paper, “The Future of the United Kingdom’s Deterrent,” claimed the cost to renew all four Trident submarines would be £15-20 billion.
In the summer of 2014, a new Trident Commission recommended the renewal of the Trident system, and said it would cost about £20 billion.
There have been many protests against these plans. Many argue that the cost is likely to be much higher, that Trident renewal is unnecessary, and that the money is needed for other important purposes.
The British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), has opposed the renewal of Trident. CND estimates that the total cost to replace and operate the Trident system over 30 years would be £75-100 billion, to be paid by the tax-payers. If nuclear weapons were banned and eliminated during this time—another CND goal—these funds would have been completely wasted.
French nuclear weapons cost about €3.5 billion per year.
In France there is no public debate on nuclear weapons, as there is in the UK or the US. It seems to be generally accepted among the population that France should have nuclear weapons. The French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique wrote that nuclear weapons are forgotten in the debate and stated the annual cost is €3.5 – 4.5 billion.
Several civil society organizations protest against nuclear weapons and their costs, but they are rather small and find it difficult to make their voices heard.
In his book ’Audit atomique. Le coût de l’arsenal nucléaire français 1945-2010’ the researcher Bruno Barillot estimates that France’s nuclear weapons during the years 1945 – 2010 cost 1891 billion franc.
NATO’s nuclear weapons in Europe
Nuclear weapons are deployed at European air bases in five countries: Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Turkey. NATO’s costs to maintain these bases have been estimated at more than $80 million from 2000 to 2014. Security improvements at the air bases are expected to cost an additional $154 million. Furthermore, US nuclear weapons based in Europe are about to be modernized.
The total global costs of nuclear weapons
Global Zero made an attempt to estimate the total global costs associated with nuclear weapons in 2010 and 2011.
Nuclear weapons spending ($US billion)
In 2011, the United States accounted for nearly half of the world’s nuclear weapons expenditures.
In 2008, Ben Cramer had arrived a comparable totals for nuclear weapons expenditures (between $87 and $93 billion) in his book Nuclear Weapons: At What Cost?’ (International Peace Bureau, IPB).
We can reasonably conclude that the world spends about $100 billion on nuclear weapons, year after year. Over ten years, this comes to $1,000 billion!
‘Nuclear Weapons: At What Cost?’ includes a table estimating each nuclear-armed State’s per capita costs for nuclear weapons. Israel places highest, followed by the United States.
Nuclear weapons spending 2008, $-dollar per capita
Costs of disarmament
Nuclear weapons will leave an economic legacy long after they are banned and eliminated. The dismantlement and safe disposal of nuclear weapons and the fissile materials they contain is also expensive, as is remediation of the environment at nuclear test sites and production facilities, to the extent that is even possible. Entire workforces will have to be retrained and employed elsewhere. A global infrastructure will be required to ensure that no State attempts to rebuild nuclear weapons after they are eliminated. These costs are unavoidable in a nuclear disarmed world. The costs of maintaining and modernizing existing arsenals for decades to come, however, are much higher. Should those weapons ever be used, the costs will be practically incalculable.
Many companies, research institutions, high-tech companies etc make large profits from the production of nuclear weapons. ICAN has developed information about the banks and funds that invest money in such companies, called Don’t Bank on the Bomb. ICAN and its partner organizations are working to contact these financial institutions and urge them to refrain from such investments.
Last update: September 2, 2015