The US is at an inflection point when it comes to nuclear power.

On the one hand, there is public pressure against nuclear power—relatively low gas and energy prices since 2015 have decreased the perceived need for nuclear, plant disasters like the ones at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 give it a dangerous reputation, and lastly most people just don’t know much about the issue, leading to more people against it, than for it.

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On the other side, nuclear power is necessary—whether for its pure civilian purpose as 20 percent of our electrical output, or the military reasons as the source for power for certain Naval submarines or nuclear weapons and deterrence against Russia, China, and others, or for national security as a way to give us access to the programs of other nations and avoid terrorist control, or its political uses in foreign policy as part of a Cold War-reminiscent containment policy against Russia and China.

And the government faces tough decisions ahead.

The Obama administration’s nuclear weapons modernization plan will cost taxpayers an estimated inflation-adjusted $1.7 trillion over the next 30 years, which equates to about six percent of all defense spending over that time period, but the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that at its peak in the late 2020s and early 2030s the nuclear weapons would account for eight percent of total defense spending and 15 percent of the Defense Department’s (DoD) acquisition costs.

For more details about the nuclear modernization efforts:

From the Arms Control Association, here are the nuclear modernization efforts:

  • Modernized Strategic Delivery Systems: Existing U.S. nuclear delivery systems are undergoing continual modernization, including complete rebuilds of the Minuteman III ICBM and Trident II SLBM. The service lives of the Navy’s 14 Trident Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines are being extended. Additionally, a new submarine, the Columbia class, which will replace the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines, is undergoing development and is expected to cost about $128 billion to develop, according to the Defense Department. The B-2 strategic bomber, a relatively new system, is being upgraded, as is the B-52H bomber. The Air Force is also planning a new strategic bomber, the B-21, and a new nuclear-capable cruise missile, known as the Long-Range Standoff Weapon (LRSO) to replace the existing Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM).

 

  • Refurbished Nuclear Warheads: The U.S. stockpile of nuclear warheads and bombs is continually refurbished through NNSA’s Life Extension Program (LEP). Existing warheads are certified annually to be safe and reliable. The NNSA is currently pursuing a controversial and expensive plan to consolidate the existing number of nuclear warhead types from 10 down to 5, although this program has been delayed. Known as the “3+2” strategy, the five LEPs associated with this approach are estimated to cost over $60 billion.

 

  • Modernized Production Complex: The nuclear weapons production complex is being modernized as well, with new facilities planned and funded. For example, the FY 2019 NNSA budget request includes $703 million for the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF) at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The total construction cost for UPF is estimated at $6.5 – 7.5 billion, according to an independent study conducted by the Corps of Engineers, although some estimates put the price tag at $11 billion. NNSA has pledged to complete construction by 2025 for $6.5 billion.

 

  • Command and Control Systems: The Defense Department maintains command, control, communications, and early-warning systems that allow operators to communicate with nuclear forces, issue commands that control their use, and detect or rule out incoming attacks. The department plans to spend $40.5 billion on these activities between FY 2017 and FY 2026. This estimate is probably understated as the Pentagon is still developing its plan for modernizing these systems. In addition, the 2018 NPR calls for placing greater attention and focus on sustaining and upgrading command and control capabilities.

 

  • Nuclear Force Improvement Program: In the wake of revelations of professional and ethical lapses and poor morale in the U.S. nuclear force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced in November 2014 steps the department is taking to address the numerous setbacks. These include changing the conduct of inspections to reduce the burden on airmen and sailors, eliminating micromanagement of nuclear personnel seen as overtaxed by excessive bureaucratic and administrative requirements, and elevating the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the Air Force’s nuclear forces, from a three- to a four-star rank.

According to the Arms Control Association, White House and Pentagon officials have expressed concerns that the modernization plans may not be executable in the absence of significant and sustained increases in military spending for the next two decades, especially due to its overlap with the Army’s modernization program.

For more details on the Army's six modernization priorities:

Here are the six modernization priorities of the US Army, which Army Secretary Mark Esper hopes to start fielding by the late 2020s:

  1. A Long-Range Precision Fires capability that restores US Army dominance in range, munitions, and target acquisition.
  2. A Next Generation Combat Vehicle – along with other close combat capabilities in manned, unmanned, and optionally-manned variants-with the most modem firepower, protection, mobility, and power generation capabilities, to ensure our combat formations can fight and win against any foe. ·
  3. Future of Vertical Lift platforms—attack, lift, recon—in manned, unmanned, and optionally-manned variants that are survivable on the modem and future battlefield.
  4. An Army Network with hardware, software, and infrastructure – sufficiently mobile and expeditionary – that can be used to fight cohesively in any environment where the electromagnetic spectrum is denied or degraded.
  5. Air and Missile Defense capabilities that ensure our future combat formations are protected from modern and advanced and missile delivered fires, including drones.
  6. Finally, Soldier lethality thats.pans air fundamentals—shooting, moving, communicating, protecting and sustaining. We will field not only next generation individual and squad combat weapons,. But also improved body armor, sensors, radios, and load-bearing exoskeletons. Putting this all together, we must improve human performance and decision making. by increasing training and assessment; starting at the Soldier level. This will require a rapid expansion of our synthetic training environment and deeper distribution of simulations capabilities down to our battalions and companies with simulation capability to model combat in megacities; a likely battlefield of the future.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman has also previously indicated that the DoD cannot consistently rely on future national defense budget increases, like this year’s 10 percent increase.

This year, as part of a strong and confrontational Nuclear Posture Review against Russia and others, President Donald Trump requested new low-yield nuclear weapons—variants of the W76 nuclear warhead on Trident II missiles aboard America’s nuclear submarines and new sea-launched nuclear cruise missiles. Low-yield nuclear weapons are relatively small to today’s standard, but are about the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which killed about 120,000 people.

President Trump and his surrogates argued that there is a deterrence gap where Russia could use low-yield nuclear weapons in hopes that the United States, lacking a proportional response would be forced to end the war, rather than escalate to a larger nuclear war. The move was proposed as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

A letter was sent to congressional leadership from 32 former-DoD and State Department officials, US representatives, and others who argued that the measure was unnecessary and that “the greatest concern about the … is that the president might feel less restrained about using it in a crisis.”

Despite the letter and Democratic opposition, the amendment to the NDAA passed on Thursday.

Nuclear energy also faces increased difficulty in the private sector, which is important because many officials argue that a strong civilian nuclear power has a national security imperative.

Picture from CSIS panel discussion. From left to right: Laura Holgate, Robert Rosner, and Adam Cohen.

Under current trends, and without government intervention, by 2040-2050, there wouldn’t be any nuclear reactors in the US, said Robert Rosner, a physicist and the Department Chair of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the University Chicago, at a panel event on nuclear energy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on Thursday.

Fellow panelist Laura Holgate, the former US Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Association, the United Nations’ forum for peaceful nuclear power, argued that its crucial to maintain the civilian nuclear supply chain for its use for naval power, intelligence gathering, and geopolitical considerations.  

“We’ve got to get out of this ambivalence about nuclear in our country,” she said. “If we’re not thinking about where we want to be [in terms of our relationships in the Middle East] 100 years from now, we’re five steps behind the Russians because they’ve had that thought and they’ve been working on it since the early 2000s.”