Is it $73 billion globally every year or over $100 billion?

In June 2021, ICAN produced a report Complicit: 2020 Global Nuclear Weapons Spending, indicating that the nuclear armed states collectively spent $72.6 billion in 2020 on nuclear weapons. However, this figure only covers the core costs of the production and deployment of nuclear weapons. It does not cover their full financial costs – which also include the environmental and health costs associated with the testing and production of nuclear weapons, as well as additional weapons, intelligence and management systems developed to protect against nuclear attack, reduce the risk of nuclear weapons use and address nuclear proliferation. The full financial cost of the nuclear weapons programs is likely to be well over $100 billion per year.

Three detailed studies have attempted to detail the full costs of the US and global nuclear weapons programs.

The first, Atomic Audit, tracked the financial costs of each aspect of the US nuclear weapons program from 1945 until 1998. This includes financial costs of research, development, testing, and production; deployment; command, control, communications, and intelligence; and defensive measures. The researchers also examine the costs of dismantling nuclear weapons, the management and disposal of large quantities of toxic and radioactive wastes left over from their production, compensation for persons harmed by nuclear weapons activities, nuclear secrecy, and the economic implications of nuclear deterrence. The cost to the US taxpayers? Over $5 trillion.

The second study, Nuclear Weapons at What Cost, was undertaken by International Peace Bureau (IPB) in 2009. The study attempted to emulate the broad focus taken by Atomic Audit to ascertain the annual financial costs of the nuclear weapons programs of all eight nuclear armed states. The resulting finding of $90 billion as the total global spending on nuclear weapons was based on publicly available figures, and so is likely to be conservative.

In 2011, Global Zero built on the work of the Atomic Audit and Nuclear Weapons at What Cost with an indepth study on global costs of nuclear weapons in 2010, as well as projections on the costs over the coming decade. The results, published in the report World Spending on Nuclear Weapons surpasses $1 trillion per decade, affirmed the IPB assessment that current global costs were about $90 billion, but projected that these costs would rise to over $100 billion per year from 2011.

At the time of the 2011 Global Zero report, core costs of the US nuclear weapons program were $31 billion per year. However, Global Zero reported that these core costs did not include the continuing environmental and health costs of the 1030 nuclear weapons tested by the USA over the past 76 years, missile defenses assigned to defend against nuclear weapons, nuclear threat reduction and incident management, and clean-up costs from production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons. According to Global Zero, including these costs added more than 50% to the nuclear weapons budgetary costs making the 2010 real figure $56 billion.

Fast track forward to 2021, and the core costs of the US nuclear weapons program, as reported by the US Congressional Budget Office have increased to  $41 billion annually, and are set to rise even further to over $60 billion per year for the next ten years, according to program commitments made by the US administration. If Global Zero’s analysis from 2011 is correct, and there is no reason to doubt this, the real costs of the US nuclear weapons program are already well over $60 billion, and the global annual costs of nuclear weapons are over $110 billion. Indeed, the costs are possibly even higher. Global Zero did not include in their more expansive figure, the costs of dual use programs (i.e. that have application to both nuclear and non-nuclear objectives) such as other air defenses, anti-submarine warfare and dual-use intelligence and surveillance programs.

Unfortunately, there is no uncontestable, audited accounting of the full costs of nuclear weapons. It is undisputable that the $73 billion figure is too low. But is $110 accurate? We don’t know. The Move the Nuclear Weapons Money campaign uses the $100 billion figure as probably the most reasonable, inclusive and defendable estimate possible.