The Government's Nuclear Millstone
March 7, 2011 · By Robert Alvarez
There's no transforming our energy future without completely overhauling the Energy Department.
"While we are investing in areas that are critical to our future, we are also rooting out programs that aren't needed and making hard choices to tighten our belt," declared Energy Secretary Steven Chu.
Hold on. Less than 20 percent of the Energy Department's budget covers actual energy activities. More than half of that small slice gets spent on nuclear energy and fossil fuels. More than 60 percent of our supposed energy funding ends up covering the cost of safeguarding our large and antiquated nuclear infrastructure, which features enough weapons to blow up the planet many times over.
Much of this money covers the maintenance of nuclear weapon stockpiles and cleaning up the agency's enormous environmental mess at its weapons sites in Idaho, Tennessee, and elsewhere.
The Nuclear Weapons Department would be a more accurate name for this agency. Since its creation in 1977 by the Carter administration in response to a sharp rise in oil prices and supply disruptions, the Energy Department has done little to stem the country's burgeoning energy problems.
Energy conservation, the one bright spot in this picture, typically gets about 20 percent of the department's small amount of funding actually devoted to energy. That's not going to change if Congress accepts Obama's budget plan, which would boost the department's spending by about 4 percent from 2011. Solar, wind, geothermal, and other authentically "clean" alternative energy sources are only slated to get $1 billion.
What a tragedy. With about 4.5 percent of the world's population, the United States consumes more oil than any other nation and imports more than three-fifths of what it uses. As U.S. energy dependence has worsened, despite all the political instability and tyranny in many oil-rich nations, our greenhouse gas emissions have worsened as well. They've increased 17 percent since 1990 and are accelerating potentially disastrous climate disruptions.
Simply put, Obama can't uphold Chu's pledge to transform our energy future without completely overhauling the Energy Department.
Despite the rhetoric about reshaping America's energy future, the department's single largest expenditure ($7.6 billion) covers the maintenance of some 8,500 nuclear warheads and thousands of weapons parts. In seeking support for ratification of the recently enacted New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) with Russia, Obama agreed to significantly increase funding to "modernize" our nuclear weapons stockpile and rebuild the nuclear weapons production complex. Specifically, annual nuclear weapons spending will rise between 2010 and 2015 by more than 18 percent, from $6.3 billion to $7.83 billion.
This is a down payment for the $167 billion the Energy Department plans to spend over the next 20 years. Even though the U.S. nuclear arsenal has been cut in half, and new weapons design and manufacture ended 20 years ago, spending on nuclear warheads has increased by more than 30 percent since the Cold War ended. And this doesn't even include an additional $100 billion the Pentagon plans to spend on new nuclear warheads.
Even nuclear weapons fans might be dismayed to learn that we taxpayers are footing an ever-larger bill to maintain a nuclear arsenal of which only 30 percent is currently deployed. The military has discarded about 40 percent of these weapons, and we'll scrap about another thousand as part of New START.
Despite President Barack Obama's rhetoric about his aspirations for a world free of nuclear weapons, he's not making getting rid of our heap of defunct ones a big priority. Currently, warhead dismantlement has dwindled to the lowest level since the 1950s. According to the Energy Department's budget request, we'll cut our rate of warhead dismantlement by more than 50 percent over the next five years. That would leave our nation with a 15-20 year backlog of discarded nukes.
The Energy Department is being called on to usher in a new energy future for the United States, but isn't equipped to meet that challenge. The Obama administration should fundamentally restructure it, starting by jettisoning its nuclear weapons millstone, which should be the Pentagon's job.