By Daniel Ross
Editor’s note: The much-longer original version of this article written for Truthout, March 30, 2017, was edited for space by Arianne Peterson.
The covert project to create the world’s first atomic weapon during WW II, coupled with the nuclear proliferation of the Cold War era, has left a trail of toxic and radioactive waste at sites across the nation that will necessitate, by some margin, the largest environmental cleanup in the nation’s history. The amount of money that has been poured into remediating the waste already is staggering. Still, it appears that the scale of the problems, and the efforts needed to effectively tackle them, continue to be underestimated by authorities responsible for their cleanup.
Since 1989, the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Environmental Management—the agency charged with cleaning up “legacy” radioactive waste—has spent over $164 billion disposing of nuclear waste and contamination. And yet between 2011 and 2016, the DOE’s Environmental Management liability grew by roughly $94 billion.
While cleanup coffers have generally shrunk, the amount of money funneled into refurbishing the nation’s nuclear arsenal has increased markedly. The US is already slated to spend approximately $1 trillion on a nuclear armament modernization program over the next 30 years. The fight over what the final budget will look like has only just begun. But beyond these hovering questions is something much more concrete: the sheer magnitude of the legacy waste problem.
Hanford: Beset with Costly Overruns
Hanford, Washington, is a Manhattan Project era facility perched on the lip of the Columbia River, and the scene of the largest single radioactive remediation in the US. Last year, the DOE championed “20 successful years” of environmental cleanup at Hanford, which was decommissioned in the 1980s. Fifty-six million gallons of toxic waste were subsequently stored in 177 large tanks, some of which have leaked high-level radioactive sludge into the environment. The cost for treating this waste alone now sits at $16.8 billion. The projected cost of cleaning the rest of the facility? $107.7 billion. That’s not all. At least a million gallons of radioactive waste have leaked into and polluted the waters of the Columbia River, contaminating fish eaten by Indigenous people in the area, and threatening drinking water supplies for communities down river.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee: “70 Years of Neglect”
The DOE’s 33,500-acre Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee was a uranium processing facility during the Manhattan Project. It has since been divided into three major cleanup sites. Still active, Oak Ridge is perhaps most notorious for widespread mercury pollution. The DOE estimates that roughly 700,000 million pounds of mercury stemming from the plant has contaminated the soils, and surface and ground waters both on and off the base, for decades.
The sheer breadth and complexity of the remaining problems at Oak Ridge splinter opinions as to what most urgently needs to be addressed. “They say the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but what happens when every wheel on your giant 18-wheeler is squeaking?” asked Ralph Hutchison, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance. He said that multiple administrations have failed to address the problems at Oak Ridge: “This is 70 years of contamination matched by 70 years of neglect.”
Los Alamos National Lab
The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico is the site where the nuclear devices used in the first atomic tests of 1945 were made. A 46-page DOE cost estimate published last year lists 17 separate areas scattered throughout the 38 square-mile Los Alamos site still to be tackled, including unlined disposal pits, leaking underground storage tanks, polluted hillsides and canyon bottoms, waste landfills and old contaminated buildings.
Last year’s report estimates that the cleanup will be finished between 2035 and 2040 at a projected additional cost of $3.8 billion, and some consider that number on the conservative side.
West Lake, Missouri: “It’s Pretty Devastating”
In North St. Louis County, Missouri, West Lake landfill holds roughly 45,000 tons of soil mixed with radioactive Manhattan Project-era waste that was illegally dumped back in 1973. As close as 700 feet from the buried radioactive waste is an underground fire that has been slowly smoldering for at least six years.
“It’s pretty devastating,” said Dawn Chapman, who lives near the landfill. “It shakes your faith in your government. When you think about the Manhattan Project, you don’t think about living less than two miles from what is probably the world’s biggest serial killer.”
Critics are pressing for the US Army Corps of Engineers to take over responsibility for the cleanup from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Until then, many are concerned about Trump’s proposal to slash funding for the EPA by around 31 percent.
Concerns About the Future
Hanford, Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and West Lake provide only a snapshot of the wider picture. Consider the Rocky Flats Plant, a former nuclear weapons production site not far from Denver, Colorado. Rocky Flats wasn’t used to manufacture nuclear weapons until the Cold War era, but it’s still a glaring example of the pervasiveness of the nation’s ongoing nuclear headache.
Officially, the cleanup at Rocky Flats was finished over 10 years ago, at a total cost of $7 billion. It has frequently been championed as a success story. But some experts are concerned about plutonium that remains buried there. “It’s a cover-up, not a cleanup,” said former Rocky Flats Coalition of Local Governments member Mary Harlow. In particular, advocates are concerned about plutonium buried on a “wildlife refuge” that has now been opened to the public. “It’s just too dangerous for people to go walking around out there,” Harlow said.
For Marylia Kelley, executive director of Tri-Valley CAREs, any increased spending on the nuclear modernization program at active facilities like the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California has even more troubling implications.
“We’re on an extremely dangerous trajectory,” Kelley said. “We’re on a slippery slope to a new nuclear arms race.”
—Daniel Ross is a Los Angeles-based journalist.