Privatizing the Apocalypse: How Nuclear Weapons Companies Commandeer Your Tax Dollars

By Jonathan Alan King and nd Richard Krushnic. King is a professor of molecular biology at MIT and chair of the Nuclear Abolition Committee of Massachusetts Peace Action He can be reached at . Krushnic is a former real estate loan asset manager and housing and business contract analyst at Boston’s Department of Neighborhood Development. He is currently involved in community development in Latin America and can be reached at Originally published at TomDispatch

Imagine for a moment a genuine absurdity: somewhere in the United States, the highly profitable operations of a set of corporations were based on the possibility that sooner or later your neighborhood would be destroyed and you and all your neighbors annihilated.  And not just you and your neighbors, but others and their neighbors across the planet. What would we think of such companies, of such a project, of the mega-profits made off it?

In fact, such companies do exist. They service the American nuclear weapons industry and the Pentagon’s vast arsenal of potentially world-destroying weaponry.  They make massive profits doing so, live comfortable lives in our neighborhoods, and play an active role in Washington politics.  Most Americans know little or nothing about their activities and the media seldom bother to report on them or their profits, even though the work they do is in the service of an apocalyptic future almost beyond imagining.

Add to the strangeness of all that another improbability.  Nuclear weapons have been in the headlines for years now and yet all attention in this period has been focused like a spotlight on a country that does not possess a single nuclear weapon and, as far as the American intelligence community can tell, has shown no signs of actually trying to build one.  We’re speaking, of course, of Iran.  Almost never in the news, on the other hand, are the perfectly real arsenals that could actually wreak havoc on the planet, especially our own vast arsenal and that of our former superpower enemy, Russia.

In the recent debate over whether President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran will prevent that country from ever developing such weaponry, you could search high and low for any real discussion of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, even though the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates that it contains about 4,700 active warheads.  That includes a range of bombs and land-based and submarine-based missiles. If, for instance, a single Ohio Class nuclear submarine — and the Navy has 14 of them equipped with nuclear missiles — were to launch its 24 Trident missiles, each with 12 independently targetable megaton warheads, the major cities of any targeted country in the world could be obliterated and millions of people would die.

Indeed, the detonations and ensuing fires would send up so much smoke and particulates into the atmosphere that the result would be a nuclear winter, leading to worldwide famine and the possible deaths of hundreds of millions, including Americans (no matter where the missiles went off).  Yet, as if in a classic Dr. Seuss book, one would have to add: that is not all, oh, no, that is not all.  At the moment, the Obama administration is planning for the spending of up to a trillion dollars over the next 30 years to modernize and upgrade America’s nuclear forces.

Given that the current U.S. arsenal represents extraordinary overkill capacity — it could destroy many Earth-sized planets — none of those extra taxpayer dollars will gain Americans the slightest additional “deterrence” or safety. For the nation’s security, it hardly matters whether, in the decades to come, the targeting accuracy of missiles whose warheads would completely destroy every living creature within a multi-mile radius was reduced from 500 meters to 300 meters.  If such “modernization” has no obvious military significance, why the push for further spending on nuclear weapons?

One significant factor in the American nuclear sweepstakes goes regularly unmentioned in this country: the corporations that make up the nuclear weapons industry.  Yet the pressures they are capable of exerting in favor of ever more nuclear spending are radically underestimated in what passes for “debate” on the subject.

Privatizing Nuclear Weapons Development

Start with this simple fact: the production, maintenance, and modernization of nuclear weapons are sources of super profits for what is, in essence, a cartel.  They, of course, encounter no competition for contracts from offshore competitors, given that it’s the U.S. nuclear arsenal we’re talking about, and the government contracts offered are screened from critical auditing under the guise of national security.  Furthermore, the business model employed is “cost-plus,” which means that no matter how high cost overruns may be compared to original bids, contractors receive a guaranteed profit percentage above their costs. High profits are effectively guaranteed, no matter how inefficient or over-budget the project may become.  In other words, there is no possibility of contractors losing money on their work, no matter how inefficient they may be (a far cry from a corporate free-market model of production).

Those well-protected profits and the firms raking them in have become a major factor in the promotion of nuclear weapons development, undermining any efforts at nuclear disarmament of almost any sort.  Part of this process should be familiar indeed, since it’s an extension of a classic Pentagon formula that Columbia University industrial economist Seymour Melman once described so strikingly in his books and articles, a formula that infamously produced $436 hammers and $6,322 coffee makers.

Given the process and the profits, the weapons contractors have a vested interest in ensuring that the American public has a heightened sense of danger and insecurity (even as they themselves have become a leading source of such danger and insecurity).  Recently, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) produced a striking report, “Don’t Bank on the Bomb,” documenting the major corporate contractors and their investors who will reap those mega-profits from the coming nuclear weapons upgrades.

Given the penumbra of national security that envelops the country’s nuclear weapons programs, authentic audits of the contracts of these companies are not available to the public. However, at least the major corporations profiting from nuclear weapons contracts can now be identified. In the area of nuclear delivery systems — bombers, missiles, and submarines — these include a series of familiar corporate names: Boeing, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, GenCorp Aerojet, Huntington Ingalls, and Lockheed Martin. In other areas like nuclear design and production, the names at the top of the list will be less well known: Babcock & Wilcox, Bechtel, Honeywell International, and URS Corporation. When it comes to nuclear weapons testing and maintenance, contractors include Aecom, Flour, Jacobs Engineering, and SAIC; missile targeting and guidance firms include Alliant Techsystems and Rockwell Collins.

To give a small sampling of the contracts: In 2014, Babcock & Wilcox was awarded $76.8 million for work on upgrading the Ohio class submarines. In January 2013, General Dynamics Electric Boat Division was awarded a $4.6 billion contract to design and develop a next-generation strategic deterrent submarine. More of what is known of such corporate weapons contracts can be found in the ICAN Report, which also identified banks and other financial institutions investing in the nuclear weapons corporations.

Many Americans are unaware that much of the responsibility for nuclear weapons development, production, and maintenance lies not with the Pentagon but the Department of Energy (DOE), which spends more on nuclear weapons than it does on developing sustainable energy sources.  Key to the DOE’s nuclear project are the federal laboratories where nuclear weapons are designed, built, and tested. They include Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories in Livermore, California.  These, in turn, reflect a continuing trend in national security affairs, so-called GOCO sites (“government owned, contractor operated”). At the labs, this system represents a corporatization of the policies of nuclear deterrence and other nuclear weapons strategies. Through contracts with URS, Babcock & Wilcox, the University of California, and Bechtel, the nuclear weapons labs are to a significant extent privatized. The LANL contract alone is on the order of $14 billion. Similarly, the Savannah River Nuclear Facility, in Aiken, South Carolina, where nuclear warheads are manufactured, is jointly run by Flour, Honeywell International, and Huntington Ingalls Industries. Their DOE contract for operating it through 2016 totals about $8 billion dollars. In other words, in these years that have seen the rise of the warrior corporation and a significant privatization of the U.S. military and the intelligence community, a similar process has been underway in the world of nuclear weaponry.

In addition to the prime nuclear weapons contractors, there are hundreds of subcontractors, some of which depend upon those subcontracts for the bulk of their business. Any one of them may have from 100 to several hundred employees working on its particular component or system and, with clout in local communities, they help push the nuclear modernization program via their congressional representatives.

One of the reasons nuclear weapons profitability is extremely high is that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the Department of Energy, responsible for the development and operations of the DOE’s nuclear weapons facilities, does not monitor subcontractors, which makes it difficult to monitor prime contractors as well. For example, when the Project on Government Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request for information on Babock & Wilcox, the subcontractor for security at the Y-12 nuclear complex at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the NNSA responded that it had no information on the subcontractor.  Babcock & Wilcox was then in charge of building a uranium processing facility at Y-12.  It, in turn, subcontracted design work to four other companies and then failed to consolidate or supervise them.  This led to an unusable design, which was only scrapped after the subcontractors had received $600 million for work that was useless.  This Oak Ridge case, in turn, triggered a Government Accountability Office report to Congress last May indicating that such problems were endemic to the DOE’s nuclear weapons facilities.

The Nuclear Lobbyists

Federal tax dollars expended on nuclear weapons maintenance and development are a significant component of the federal budget. Although difficult to pin down precisely, the sums run into the hundreds of billions of dollars. In 2005, the Government Accountability Office reported that even the Pentagon had no firm numbers when it came to how much the nuclear mission costs, nor is there a standalone nuclear weapons budget of any sort, so overall costs must be estimated. Analyzing the budgets of the Pentagon and the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, as well as information gleaned from Congressional testimony, the Center for Nonproliferation Studies suggests that, from 2010-2018, the United States will spend at least $179 billion to maintain the current nuclear triad of missiles, bombers, and submarines, with their associated nuclear weaponry, while beginning the process of developing their next-generation replacements.  The Congressional Budget Office projects the cost of nuclear forces for 2015-2024 at $348 billion, or $35 billion annually, of which the Pentagon will spend $227 billion and the Department of Energy $121 billion. 

In fact, the price for maintaining and developing the nuclear arsenal is actually far greater than either of those estimates.  While those numbers include most of the direct costs of nuclear weapons and strategic launching systems like missiles and submarines, as well as the majority of the costs for the military personnel responsible for maintaining, operating, and executing the missions, they don’t include many other expenses, including the decommissioning process and nuclear-waste disposal issues involved in “retiring” weapons.  Nor do they include the pensions and health-care costs that will go with retiring their human operators.

In 2012, a report from a high-level committee chaired by former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright concluded that “no sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face [including] threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict-driven mass migration of refugees, epidemics, or climate change. In fact, nuclear weapons have on balance arguably become more a part of the problem than any solution.”

Not surprisingly, for the roster of corporations involved in the U.S. nuclear programs, this matters little.  They, in fact, maintain elaborate lobbying operations in support of their continuing nuclear weapons contracts. In a 2012 study for the Center for International Policy, “Bombs vs. Budgets: Inside the Nuclear Weapons Lobby,” William Hartung and Christine Anderson reported that, for the elections of that year, the top 14 contractors gave nearly $3 million directly to Congressional legislators.  Not surprisingly, half that sum went to members of the four key committees or subcommittees that oversee spending for nuclear arms.

In 2015, the defense industry mobilized a small army of at least 718 lobbyists and doled out more than $67 million dollars pressuring Congress for increased weapons spending generally.  Among the largest contributors were corporations with significant nuclear weapons contracts, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Dynamics. Such pro-nuclear lobbying is augmented by contributions and pressure from missile and aircraft companies that are primarily non-nuclear. Some of the systems they produce, however, are potentially dual-use (conventional and nuclear), which means that a robust nuclear weapons program increases their potential market.

The continuing pressure of Congressional Republicans for cuts in domestic social programs are a crucial mechanism that ensures federal tax dollars will be available for lucrative military contracts. In terms of quality of life (and death), this means that underestimating the influence of the nuclear weapons industry is singularly dangerous.  For the $35 billion or more the U.S. taxpayer will put into such weaponry annually to support the narrow interests of a modest number of companies, the payback is fear of an apocalyptic future. After all, unlike almost all other corporate lobbies, the nuclear weapons lobby (and so your tax dollars) put life on Earth at risk of rapid extinction, either following the direct destruction of a nuclear holocaust or a radical reduction in sunlight reaching the Earth’s surface that would come from the sort of nuclear winter that would follow almost any nuclear exchange. At the moment, the corporate-nuclear complex is hidden in our midst, its budgets and funds shielded from public scrutiny, its project hardly noticed. It’s a formula for disaster.

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  1. Mark P.

    Great post. Most people are clueless that —

    [1] During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union each built seventy thousand-odd fission and fusion bombs, making the nuclear weapons business one of the largest industrial enterprises in human history.

    Enough to destroy twenty-eight Earths’ biospheres, as far as one can very roughly estimate.

    What possible added deterrence does such overkill provide?

    As the post notes, even a Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff rationally concludes: “no sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face [including] threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict-driven mass migration of refugees, epidemics, or climate change. In fact, nuclear weapons have on balance arguably become more a part of the problem than any solution.”

    [2] No ‘arguably’ about it, in my view.

    People assume that because the bipolar Cold War is over, the threat of nuclear war is over. To the contrary: a few years back I had a chance to talk with some of the original Cold War deterrence strategists like Thomas Schelling and Martin Shubik (at the RAND corporation). Many of these people are now more alarmed than they were during the Cold War, because according to game theory models the threat rises exponentially with each new actor in an n-player nuclear game.

    As with the financial system in 2008, the nuclear deterrence system will inevitably fail if maintained long enough.

    1. Stephen Rhodes

      An attention-getting title for an audience like this could be: “The black swan of accidental nuclear war”. A few of us revisited the subject when the Germanwings pilot flew into the mountain.

      Stephen Carter of Yale Law was someone who brought up the obvious connection to the unsolved problem of secure command and control of nuclear weapons.

      Not long ago in the London Review of Books someone remembered the incident recounted at a reunion of top officials from the U S and Russian sides of the near launch of a nuke from a submerged Soviet sub (Cuban missile crisis 1962) under depth-charge attack by U S destroyers. Because the Soviet protocol required all three senior officers in agreement only the second officer’s nay prevented—(you name the event). . . Now think about the American protocol at our Midwest missile silos.

    2. Nick

      The results speak for themselves, America is the sole hyperpower on the planet, Russia’s economy is crumbling and population shrinking. The battle will continue throughout the 21st century, as a very non-democratic China asserts it’s aggressive expansionist plans.

  2. human

    “Between 1940 and 1996, the United States spent $5.8 trillion on nuclear weapons production, according to a new study. The Brookings Institution says its July 1 report, “The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940,” is the first comprehensive audit of U.S. nuclear policy.”

  3. washunate

    Great read.

    It would be interesting to hear an MMT perspective on why such massive weapons spending is a good idea. Or if it’s not a good idea, how MMT would go about distinguishing between eliminating wasteful spending and enacting evil austerity.

      1. washunate

        I’m not sure you intend to make that kind of observation, Lambert? The notion that economics and politics can be separated is part of the problem (IMO, of course).

        But aside from that, Firestone, Alt, and others have spent years making MMT into a political cause. They hold it up as a solution to our political problems. The critique I have been offering is that MMT doesn’t actually address our problems, with the national security state being ground zero for that disconnect.

        So if you are coming around to my perspective, I’m delighted to hear that. But I don’t think that’s what you mean?

        1. Pepsi

          That’s a strawman. MMT is an empirically derived theory about the creation of money, not a political ideology. MMT theorists and advocates tend to state that austerity is an ideological trick, not an act of sound economic policy, deployed to destroy the welfare state and force other neoliberal ‘reforms.’ They don’t say that every item in a government budget is useful or necessary.

          1. washunate

            Have you read posts on SFB? There have been authors for years asserting that aggregate deficit spending – spending measured as a percent of GDP – solves our problems.

            But moreover, that’s exactly what I’ve been saying about MMT. Sovereign money is irrelevant because our problem isn’t that politicians think the government can run out of dollars. Our problem is that politicians have gutted progressive income taxation while giving huge quantities of dollars to the wrong people.

            The national security state is MMT put into practice by our present leadership class.

  4. James Levy

    Nothing compared to the threat posed by the privatized biowarfare labs. It would be terrible if an accidental nuclear explosion took place at Savannah River. It would be a global catastrophe if some of the things they are playing with in the biowar labs ever got out. King’s The Stand is a much more likely scenario than a global thermonuclear exchange.

    1. craazyboy

      I think of it as diversification – making sure nothing good will come of our future.

      Michael Crichton was always cranking out the “oopsie bio” stuff in novels. One of the funnier ones was DNA modified cockroaches. 3ft long! That would be bad enough.

  5. susan the other

    “Government owned – contractor operated” corporations. I believe these qualify as State Owned Enterprises except for the fact that they don’t pretend to compete in excellence, only in the bidding. Our economy has always been based on this stuff. It is an absolute fantasy that “free” trade agreements are suddenly going to make corporations capitalists. Without sovereign governments to make the decision to create an economy, nothing will ever happen. Turn swords into ploughshares; keep the state owned enterprises and use them to prevent global warming and environmental destruction. At least if they are inefficient they do not threaten all life on earth.

  6. Gaylord

    Excellent, well-researched article. It would also be interesting to learn about the connection between the nuclear weapons industry and the nuclear power industry, and how these are coordinated through the DOE. Also, the DOE exerts absolute power over other government agencies such as the EPA, which may explain why the EPA shut off many of its radiation monitors following the initial Fukushima catastrophe 4-1/2 years ago (which is ongoing), why the EPA has twice raised its standard of safe levels of measured radiation which now exceeds Japan’s by a factor of 12, and why the FDA has refused to test Pacific seafood for radio-nuclide contamination even after being urged by the AMA to do so. The nuclear industry is a rogue state.

  7. crittermom

    I moved to Colorado by choice in early 1978, & never intended to leave. I loved it, & still miss it.

    I was forced to leave the state I’d called home for over half my life, however, when Chase Bank stole my ranch/home of 20 yrs in the mtns, in 2011, evicting me (still trying to fight on my own), in Jan 2012.
    I was current on my mod pymts on a $140,000 mtg when they were already foreclosing.

    They took it from me & sold it for a mere $65,000 in the Fall of 2012!
    41 fenced & cross-fenced acres, excellent well, septic, horse setup, outbuildings, nice mix trees/pasture, bordered state land, great access, but secluded, old log cabin (my home)…..

    Find ME that deal!
    I doubt you can find an acre there for that now. Seriously.

    I’d gotten approval back in the early 90’s for a B&B, for hunters & fishermen. Spent tens of thousands remodeling, so I could do that in my retirement to supplement my income. Choice area for it.

    Since marijuana became legal, they’ve had a huge influx of people to that state. Housing prices & rents have gotten astronomical. Wages, not so much.

    I hear from friends in construction back there that business is booming. Especially for “second” homes. “Vacation” homes.

    I couldn’t even afford to remain in the state I love & had called home for over half my life.
    I currently live in a very poor, rural area of New Mexico, where there’s no jobs (no people or towns), & you’d expect land to be cheap.
    Not so, even here.
    I live here because friends found me a place to rent that allowed my best friend (my old, large dog), & I could afford. (There’s a reason it’s so cheap. No BR, no septic…)
    I couldn’t afford rent anywhere in CO. I’d lost everything.

    I can truly never go home again, since my cabin was razed by the “new owners” (clouded title!), no doubt to make way for a vacation home.
    While us victims can’t even afford ONE home. Especially in this insane market.

    My son & his wife still reside in Denver, where they’ve been renting for 7 yrs.
    They looked at homes, & even with their good jobs, they’re out of reach. (Median price of $435,000 last I saw).
    Rents are outrageous, too, anywhere in the state. (Fortunately, they’ve rented from friends for all that time, so their rent has remained low, but now they couldn’t afford to move if they wanted to).

    I want to go “home” again!
    I remain disgusted with THE govt (I have a hard time thinking of it as “my” govt anymore), for allowing the banksters to get away with their criminal activities for years while hundreds of thousands of us (it’s now MILLIONS), were crying “foul”.

    But it’s worked out great for those making big bucks, hasn’t it?
    They can now afford prime land for their second homes!
    OUR homes.

  8. crittermom

    I should’ve mentioned that I’m a divorced female, turning 64 next mth.
    It’s hard enough to start over with NOTHING at my age, but in this housing market, it’s impossible on my small income.

  9. crittermom

    OH NO!
    I’m sorry. I accidentally posted my comment under the wrong article,after my computer went wacko for a moment & I had to start over.

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