Managing the Environmental Legacy of U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Production
Although the waste from America's arms buildup will never be "cleaned up," human and environmental risks can be reduced and managed
The development of the atomic bomb during the Second World War was a stunning scientific and engineering achievement. Created by order of President Franklin Roosevelt in 1942, the Manhattan Project had produced by 1945 enough enriched uranium and plutonium for the August attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Second World War. The sources of that enriched uranium and plutonium were the Oak Ridge site in Tennessee (then called Clinton Laboratories) and the Hanford Engineering Works in Washington, respectively—massive industrial complexes built from scratch to spearhead the development effort. After the war, these sites were expanded and additional sites established to meet the nation's growing demands for nuclear materials for the Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union.
The effort to build the bomb and win the arms race exacted a steep environmental price. Substantial quantities of radioactive and chemical contaminants were released to the environment, and even today large quantities of radioactive and toxic waste remain in storage at several sites. While it was being produced, few provisions were made for "solving" the problem of waste—that is, putting the waste into a stable form and placing it out of reach of people and the environment—and the passage of time has since exacerbated the difficulties. With institutional memories fading and facilities aging, management of this legacy has become a more difficult, expensive and perilous undertaking.
The federal government, under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is making large expenditures of taxpayer funds to address the environmental legacy of the arms race. But after almost 13 years of effort and outlays of over $70 billion, the goal of "cleanup" is proving elusive. Through the work of independent expert committees appointed by the National Research Council, we have been following the DOE cleanup program for many years. Here, in a personal and unofficial assessment of what has been learned, we examine that program's efforts to come to terms with the environmental consequences of weapons production, including its technical and societal dimensions. Our examination suggests that it is time for the cleanup program to redefine success based on reducing and managing the human and environmental health risks that will extend far into the future.