Back in 2015, while campaigning for Donald Trump, former Alaska governor and right-wing icon Sarah Palin proposed abolishing the Department of Energy.
“I’d shut down the federal level because the Department of Energy has done nothing but stall responsible development. But states ought to be in charge of developing their own natural resources,” she said.
Many Americans, including presumably Palin and Trump, might be surprised to learn about the largest line item in the Department of Energy’s budget — $19.7 billion in fiscal 2022 for what is euphemistically described as “ensuring the nation’s nuclear security.”
The fine print says this money will be used for “maintenance and refurbishment of nuclear weapons” and “sustainment of manufacturing capabilities,” which include “plutonium processing” and “tritium finishing,” and development of “the first exascale high-performance computing system” for simulating thermonuclear explosions.
In short, this enormous sum is being used to make sure our stockpile of nuclear weapons works, even though neither the United States or Russia has tested a weapon since the early 1990s amid efforts to adopt the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty.
According to publicly available information, the program has developed a new model of the mainstay B61 bomb, the latest of which, the B61-12, can be set for an explosion between 1% and 250% of the power of the bombs used in World War II. The B61 is both a tactical and strategic weapon, is deployed to Europe and can be carried on NATO aircraft.
To put this U.S. program in perspective, the Russian military budget is estimated by various sources to be around $50 billion — not counting any deductions due to corrupt oligarchs. So our spending just on nuclear weapons amounts to almost half of the total Russian military budget.
As Putin’s war has ground to a deadly standstill, he has repeatedly threatened to use his nuclear weapons. We have to be very, very concerned about this possibility. But if he uses one, will it work?
Russia clearly isn’t making the investments that we are, and the track record of their conventional weapons in the war is mixed. Asked about Russia’s precision weapons on Tuesday, a senior Defense Department official replied, “Either they’re failing to launch or they’re failing to hit the target, or they’re failing to explode on contact. So we’re seeing them have some struggles with respect to precision-guided munitions.”
If Russian weapons that can be tested don’t work, what about their untested nuclear weapons? Nuclear materials like plutonium and tritium degrade over time, and complex bomb parts age. That’s why the United States has a giant program under the Department of Energy.
Putin’s disastrous war against Ukraine seems driven by a mystical, quasi-religious desire to wipe out that country and its people and merge the land into “Mother Russia.” Who knows what he will do.
If he resorts to nuclear weapons, we have some reason to hope they won’t work. But Putin, on the other hand, can be sure ours will.
Chris Jennewein is editor and publisher of Times of San Diego.