Billions Spent, Billions More Needed to Clean Nuclear Weapons Sites

By Cat Lazaroff

WASHINGTON, DC, January 26, 2000 (ENS) - Cleanups at nuclear weapons facilities around the United States are proceeding, but not nearly fast enough, according to two reports released this week. A nonprofit group and a federal agency both say the nation should be doing more to remove contaminated soil, water and groundwater, stored radioactive and hazardous wastes and excess bomb making materials.

basin

At the DOE's Savannah River Site and other nuclear weapons facilities, contaminated areas like this former wastewater basin are in urgent need of cleanup (All photos courtesy Savannah River Site)
Efforts by the U.S. Department of Energy to clean up contamination at its former nuclear weapons facilities have been hampered by inadequate oversight of projects and contractors, an unclear mission, and uncertainty over which facilities will have a future DOE mission, says the independent research organization Resources for the Future (RFF).

Meanwhile, a federal oversight agency reports that the slower than expected cleanups are largely due to inadequate funding.

Cleaning up the nation’s former nuclear weapons facilities is one of the costliest and most difficult legacies of the Cold War, says RFF. More than $50 billion has been spent since 1989 to clean up sites where nuclear weapons were produced during the Cold War, making it the largest environmental project the U.S. has ever undertaken.

Department of Energy (DOE) officials estimate that the cleanup will cost an additional $150 billion to $200 billion over the next 70 years. Despite the money and time spent, it is difficult to discern what real progress has been made, or whether the cleanup is focused on the right goals, RFF says in its report, "Cleaning Up the Nuclear Weapons Complex: Does Anybody Care?"

"The [DOE’s] Office of Environmental Management program has largely escaped the kind of sustained scrutiny paid to other environmental issues by advocates, the media, Congress and administrations of both parties," the RFF report notes.

air stripper

Technologies like this air stripper help remove contaminants from groundwater
Congress and the Executive branch should take immediate steps to clarify the DOE’s environmental goals, step up oversight of the program, and decide which former weapons sites should be permanently closed, the report says.

"Given that most of the cleanup lies well in the future, meaningful change today could bring benefits for decades to come," said RFF senior fellow Kate Probst, lead author of the study. Probst has been working on the report for the past five years.

Because RFF blames many of the problems on poor oversight of the Office of Environmental Management, the report urges a clarification of that office’s mission as the first step toward a better cleanup system. The DOE must separate the Office's environmental and economic transition functions and clearly articulate its core missions, the report says.

In addition, Congress or the president should create an independent commission to evaluate the current organizational structure in the Office of Environmental Management and identify needed reforms. The commission should focus on establishing a clear mission, streamlining lines of authority, encouraging greater internal and external accountability, and protecting the environmental management program from parochial interests.

One key question it should address is whether the environmental management of former nuclear weapons sites belongs in the DOE, RFF says.

sampling well

Sampling wells are drilled to monitor the movements of underground contamination plumes
The Office’s cleanup work has become an important job creation and economic transition vehicle in communities that once housed weapons facilities. In the early 1990s, for example, DOE's environmental management program employed more people at these sites than were employed there at the height of the Cold War.

There are now almost 36,000 contractors are employed by DOE to fix the environmental problems left by five decades of nuclear weapons production.

The U.S. stopped producing nuclear weapons 10 years ago, but uncertainty about future uses of former weapons facilities makes it difficult to set appropriate cleanup goals, the RFF report says. It suggests that Congress should enact legislation, modeled on the Base Closure Realignment Act, that defines a process for deciding which sites will have future missions and which will be closed - a step that ultimately could speed cleanup and crystallize environmental goals at each site.

Currently, the government is devoting much of its cleanup resources to closed plants, rather than to those that will remain operational, RFF says.

"At these sites, where the local community knows that DOE no longer will be providing jobs after the cleanup is complete, the focus of local, state and DOE efforts is on getting the cleanup done as quickly as possible and moving on to life without DOE," the report notes.

remediation

These Water Treatment Units at the Savannah River Site can remove some radioactive contaminants, but not tritium. Treated water is pumped back underground to allow tritium to degrade naturally
Congress should require the Department to issue reports every year that document the extent of contamination at each site, the alternatives for cleanup, money spent and the progress that has been made, RFF says.

Changes are also needed in internal accounting and budgeting procedures to clarify how money is spent, and to improve the accountability of the program's federal employees as well as its 36,000 prime contractors. Independent audits conducted over the past decade have revealed that the department has wasted millions of dollars on mismanaged or misguided projects, RFF says.

This week, a federal report also called attention to money problems in the DOE’s management of environmental cleanups. Specifically, the report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board noted that "the most common reason given for failure to meet schedules has been insufficient financial support."

In 1994, the Board sent the DOE a recommended schedule for the cleanup and stabilization of radioactive materials at nuclear weapons sites across the country. The Board’s 2000 report to Energy Secretary Bill Richardson notes that "the Board is concerned that severe problems continue to exist," and that the progress being made in cleaning up these sites "does not reflect the urgency that the circumstances merit and that was central to the Board’s recommendation."

The DOE should advise Congress and the President that more funds are needed to ensure safe and swift cleanups, the Board said, and prioritize currently available funds to stabilize the riskiest sites.

mobile lab

Oak Ridge National Laboratory is loaning the Savannah River Site a mobile lab to help the DOE monitor radioactive contaminants
The Board cited particular concerns over radioactively contaminated liquids. At the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, for example, about 34,000 liters of plutonium contaminated solution, 14,400 liters of a solution of americium and curium, and 6,000 liters of a neptunium solution still must be removed from holding tanks.

"In the Board’s view, materials remaining in liquids generally poses the greatest hazard, because of higher possibility of dispersal and because of potential criticality," the report notes. The Board recommends stabilizing the liquid wastes at the Savannah River Site as a top priority.

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is responsible for independent, external oversight of all activities in DOE's nuclear weapons facilities affecting nuclear health and safety.

The Resources for the Future report is available at: http://www.rff.org/. The group has also posted a guide to Internet resources from organizations that research and monitor the cleanup of nuclear weapons sites, available at: http://www.rff.org/nuclearcleanup/Default.htm

The report by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board is available at: http://www.dnfsb.gov/recomnd.htm, under 2000-1, Prioritization for Stabilizing Nuclear Material.