Who Makes Public Policy?: The Struggle for Control between Congress and the Executive

By Robert S. Gilmour; Alexis A. Halley et al. | Go to book overview

6
Making Up for Lost Time: The
Defense Nuclear Weapons
Complex Cleanup

JAMES A. THURBER


Background and Overview

For nearly fifty years nuclear weapons have been produced at fourteen facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and its predecessor agencies that together constitute the nuclear weapons complex. 1 The facilities have generated vast amounts of chemically toxic and highly radioactive waste and have released large amounts of radionuclides and hazardous chemicals into the environment. As early as August 1947 a team of specialists in environmental health and safety matters from the newly created Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) warned the agency about the effects of radioactive and toxic materials on the people building nuclear weapons and the communities surrounding the bomb-making facilities. They found that "the whole problem of the disposal of radioactive and toxic wastes needs immediate laboratory and field study. The disposal of contaminated waste ... if continued for decades, presents the gravest of problems. This is one of the areas of research that cannot be indefinitely postponed." 2 The extent and complexity of the environmental pollution and nuclear waste throughout the complex that have built up since the report in 1947 present major challenges for DOE, other federal agencies, the states, and Congress in the post-Cold War 1990S.

Since the I940s the nuclear waste produced by the weapons complex has been processed, stored, or disposed of in ways that do not meet today's environmental standards. Spills and leakages at inactive waste sites have contaminated the soil and groundwater in several locations, and there are hundreds of contaminated, empty buildings within the complex. Until recently, the health and environmental risks posed by this situation were hidden from the public behind the veil of national security.

Since the mid-I980s, however, the risks have been widely discussed and

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