The Challenge Ahead: Long-Term Stewardship Will Be Needed at the Nuclear Weapons Complex to Protect Health and the Environment

Article excerpt

No matter how much money the U.S. Department of Energy spends to address radioactive and hazardous contamination at its former nuclear weapons production sites, some hazards will remain. As a result, a program of long-term stewardship will be needed to protect human health and the environment for future generations.

The Problem

For nearly five decades, DOE and its predecessors engaged in a highly secretive, complex, and massive endeavor to fabricate nuclear weapons. This effort required enormous facilities, material and energy inputs, and human labor. The "weapons complex" consisted of nuclear defense, nuclear energy, and research installations. These facilities were scattered across the United States at large federal reservations and at smaller commercial sites. Some of these facilities housed nuclear weapons research, production, and testing activities. Others focused on civilian nuclear energy research and development activities. Huge laboratories were dedicated to nuclear research.

In the rush to produce the materials, components, and devices necessary to manufacture thousands of nuclear weapons, DOE paid scant attention to the environmental consequences of its actions. Waste materials from research and production activities were often buried onsite in shallow earth trenches or placed in settling ponds. At many sites, tremendous volumes of soil and groundwater were contaminated with hazardous and radioactive substances. Large volumes of poorly managed wastes leaked from damaged containment structures, and many aging facilities harboring highly radioactive materials deteriorated. For years, there was little information publicly available about these problems and little external regulation of DOE's environmental management activities.

With the winding down of the Cold War in the late 1980s, weapons production operations ceased. Largely because of increased media attention as well as litigation ending DOE's immunity from federal environmental enforcement, DOE turned its attention to the growing health, safety, and environmental concerns linked to past nuclear weapons production activities. Now, almost 15 years later, a third of DOE's budget goes to its Office of Environmental Management. At $6 billion, the annual Office of Environmental Management budget is twice as big as total estimated public and private expenditures on nonfederal Superfund sites and just $1 billion less than the budget for the entire U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

DOE's Office of Environmental Management is faced with the Herculean task of cleaning up contamination, wastes, nuclear materials, and contaminated structures at more than 100 sites in 30 states around the country. It will take decades before the department completes cleanup activities at all the sites in the weapons complex. The total price tag has been estimated at $150 billion to $200 billion, with most of this money going to five sites: Hanford, Savannah River, Rocky Flats, Oak Ridge, and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Describing the Office of Environmental Management program as a cleanup program, however, is something of a misnomer. No matter how much money is spent, some hazards will remain at more than two-thirds of the sites. Many of the sites will be home to waste storage and disposal facilities. The lack of proven technologies to address radioactive contamination, including contaminated soil and groundwater, also ensures that hazards will remain at these sites for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. DOE will not be able to walk away from these sites, nor from its past contamination problems. A program of longterm stewardship will therefore be needed at the majority of the sites in the weapons complex.

Long-Term Stewardship

Broadly speaking, stewardship refers to physical controls, institutions, information, and other mechanisms needed to ensure protection of people and the environment, both in the short and the long term, after the cleanup of the weapons complex is considered complete. …