Why Are We Still Building Nuclear Weapons? Follow the Money
This month marks the 76th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, events that resulted in the immediate deaths of well over 100,000 people and underscored the devastating consequences of building, deploying, and using nuclear weapons. Those attacks should have served as a wake-up call on the need to control and eliminate these potential world-ending weapons, but determined efforts by scientists, political leaders, policy advocates, and grassroots advocates around the world have yet to abolish them.
The risks and potential consequences of a nuclear conflagration are even higher than they were during the Cold War arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which resulted not only in a massive nuclear buildup but a number of occasions in which a nuclear war by intention or accident came dangerously close to occurring. The widely respected Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set its “doomsday clock” at 100 seconds to midnight, an indication of how close humanity has come to a nuclear conflict. And a study by the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and Physicians for Social Responsibility has shown that the use of even a fraction of the world’s current nuclear arsenals could spark a global famine that would put billions of lives at risk. Bearing this in mind, the international community, under the leadership of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), has created and brought into force the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which has been signed by 86 nations and ratified by 55 of them. This is an historic accomplishment, but the real culprits – the major nuclear weapons states that possess the vast bulk of the world’s nuclear weapons – have yet to sign onto the measure.
The United States maintains an active nuclear stockpile of roughly 4,000 nuclear weapons, including over 1,500 deployed warheads. Russia’s stockpile is comparable, at roughly 4,400, while China follows with roughly 300 strategic nuclear warheads. Despite its considerably smaller arsenal, recent revelations regarding China’s construction of new silos for long-range nuclear missiles are cause for real concern as they raise the risk of accelerating the nuclear arms race at great risk to the future of the planet. These developments demand dialogue to roll back the production of new nuclear weapons systems, leading to reductions in the size of global arsenals and the ultimate elimination of this existential threat.
The continued development and deployment of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) is of particular concern. As former Secretary of Defense William Perry has noted, ICBMs are “some of the most dangerous weapons in the world” because a president would have only a matter of minutes to decide whether to launch them upon warning of a nuclear attack, increasing the possibility of an accidental nuclear war based on a false alarm.
Given all of the above, why is the United States still building nuclear weapons, more than seven decades after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The U.S. is not alone in building a new generation of nuclear weapons – Russia and China are doing so as well. But the Pentagon’s 30-year plan to build new nuclear-armed bombers, missiles, and submarines – along with new nuclear warheads to go with them at a cost of up to $2 trillion – is the height of folly and an unnecessary, grave risk to the lives of current and future generations. A major reason for this misguided policy can be summed up in a phrase – there is money to be made in perpetuating the nuclear arms race.
The FY 2022 Pentagon budget proposal includes billions of dollars for new nuclear delivery vehicles, with a handful of prime contractors as the primary beneficiaries. For example, Northrop Grumman’s
Additional recipients of nuclear weapons-related funding are the firms that run the nuclear warhead complex. Major contractors include Honeywell and Bechtel, which run key facilities for the development and production of nuclear warheads.
Nuclear weapons contractors spend millions of dollars on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts every year in their efforts to shape nuclear weapons policy and spending. While not all of this spending is devoted to lobbying on nuclear weapons programs, these expenditures are indicative of the political clout they can bring to bear on Congress as needed to sustain and expand the budgets for their nuclear-related programs. The major nuclear weapons contractors made a total of over $119 million in campaign contributions from 2012 to 2020, including over $31 million in 2020 alone. The companies spent $57.9 million on lobbying in 2020 and employed 380 lobbyists among them.
The only way to be truly safe from nuclear weapons is to eliminate them altogether, as called for in the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. As noted above, the major nuclear powers have yet to sign onto the treaty but pressing them to do so should be a central component of efforts to rein in nuclear dangers.
It’s time that we stopped allowing special interest lobbying and corporate profits to stand in the way of a more sensible nuclear policy. The future of humanity depends on it.