Integrated Weapons-Site Cleanup: The Department of Energy Is Using Ecosystem Management to Help Clean Up Our Nation's Nuclear Weapons Sites

Article excerpt

In 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission, forerunner to the present-day U.S. Department of Energy, was looking for a place to test its newly developing arsenal of nuclear weapons. It selected a remote tract of the Mojave Desert in southern Nevada, 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas. For the next four decades, the Nevada Test Site would serve as the nations nuclear testing ground.

The Nevada Test Site covers 1,350 square miles (3,500 square kilometers), which is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. Until 1962, when aboveground testing was banned, the Atomic Energy Commission conducted about 100 aboveground nuclear tests on the site. During the next three decades, until nuclear testing was banned altogether in 1994, more than 800 underground tests were conducted on the site. Today, the site is largely used for disposing of low-level DOE wastes. The Yucca Mountain site, which is being studied as a possible respository for high-level nuclear wastes from nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors throughout the United States, straddles the test site's western perimeter.

The Nevada Test Site is one of 140 sites in DOE'S nuclear weapons complex--which includes such familiar names as Savannah River, Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Idaho Falls--that are remnants of the Cold War legacy. Now that the Cold War is over, DOE has begun cleaning up the Nevada Test Site.

The Nevada Test Site contains more contaminated surface rock, soil, and groundwater than any other site in the DOE weapons complex. The amount of radioactivity in the environment from weapons testing is estimated at 300 million curies, spread over about 300 square miles (800 square kilometers). DOE's goal is to remove enough of the contamination from the soil and groundwater to make the environment safe for future use. Cleanup began in 1997 and will extend to 2007, at a cost of $1.3 billion. (1)

Future uses being considered include developing the site for producing clean-burning fuels, decontaminating low-level nuclear wastes, or training emergency workers who deal with highly destructive weapons.

Ecosystem Management

As part of the restoration of the Nevada Test Site, DOE developed a resource management plan to ensure the long-term sustainability of the site. (2) The main goals of the plan are to

* Manage and sustain natural resources.

* Maintain native ecosystems, biota, and habitats.

* Protect undisturbed areas.

* Develop baseline environmental information needed for cleanup, land use planning, and ecosystem management.

* Site new facilities only on environmentally suitable, previously disturbed lands.

* Foster sustainable economic development.

Traditional resource management focuses on managing a single resource such as water, livestock, or timber. Wildlife management and operating reservoirs for navigation and flood control are traditional resource management approaches.

Ecosystem management, which is at the heart of DOE's resource management plan, focuses instead on managing the ecosystem as a whole, including its fauna, flora, soils, groundwater, and air. Ecosystem management recognizes that humans are a fundamental component of ecosystems; it appreciates the importance of the diversity and complexity of ecosystems; and it strives to maintain the processes that tie the physical, chemical, and biological components of the ecosystem together. (3)

As a resource tool, ecosystem management has been applied successfully in a variety of other settings. (4) In the Pacific Northwest, for example, where logging has abused forests and streams for decades, ecosystem management is being used to identify sensitive areas that should be restored, areas where logging should be banned, and areas where logging can occur, provided it balances environmental and economic objectives.

Similarly, ecosystem management has been successfully applied to livestock grazing in arid lands to help restore abused sensitive habitats and to avoid further damage. …