U.S. now faces nightmare of vast nuclear cleanup

February 21, 1991|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The atomic bomb, averred physicist Niels Bohr back in 1939, could not be built without "turning the country into a gigantic factory."

A few years later, when the renowned scientist was being shown the secret sites of the Manhattan Project, nuclear physicist Edward Teller recalled:

"When Bohr came to Los Alamos [National Laboratory], I was prepared to say, 'You see. . . .' But before I could open my mouth, he said, 'You see, I told you it couldn't be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.' "

The occasion is recounted in a report released last week by Congress' Office of Technology Assessment to illustrate what it says is a staggering task confronting the Department of Energy to clean up the poisonous byproducts of 50 years of nuclear weapons production.

"There is evidence that air, ground water, surface water, sediments and soil, as well as vegetation and wildlife, have been contaminated at most, if not all, of the DOE nuclear weapons sites," the report said.

"Serious questions have been raised about the potential human health threats posed by such contamination."

The report emerged only a few days after the administration revealed plans to cut back and streamline the nuclear weapons industry, in line with perceptions that the nuclear arms race has run its course, or at least slowed to a jog.

The OTA described the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex as "an industrial empire" comprising 15 sites for research, production, testing and disposal, covering almost 3,400 square miles and employing 115,000 people in 13 states across the continent.

Cleanup of the massive radioactive pollution may take much longer than the 30 years projected by the DOE, it said, and some sites may never be restored sufficiently to permit public access.

In sum, the Department of Energy "has neither the capability nor credibility" for the task, said Robert W. Niblock, the OTA's oceans and environment program manager.

Unofficial estimates of the eventual cost of the cleanup and environmental restoration run as high as $200 billion. A five-year projection by the DOE last year put the cost of work at $34.7 billion through 1996. In its budget estimates for the coming fiscal year, the administration has asked Congress to approve $4.4 billion for cleanup activities.

Among the most pressing problems are: a growing stockpile of liquid wastes, amounting to millions of gallons, held in temporary storage tanks at Hanford, Wash., and Savannah River, S.C.; cleanup of plutonium-contaminated soil at the Rocky Flats laboratory near Denver; uranium pollution at Fernald, Ohio; and toxic wastes dumped in the ground at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory and the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee.

"Although no consensus has been reached on how or where to dispose of it, most of the waste generated in the past, and much of the waste generated in the future, is clearly destined to remain at the site of generation for decades to come," the OTA said.

Public concerns over health and environmental impacts have yet to be adequately addressed, it continued, adding that the DOE lacked the necessary expertise and the organization to deal with the problems -- "substantial credibility and public acceptance problems continue to hinder progress."

It offered as reasons for the contamination: the "inherently waste-producing" nature of the industry; the practice of producing weapons urgently "to the neglect of environmental considerations"; the "lack of knowledge about, or attention to, the consequences of environmental contamination"; and an overarching secrecy that precluded independent oversight or public scrutiny.

The 212-page report, requested by the Senate Armed Services Committee, took 18 months to compile. It recommended increasing public access to information about nuclear issues and suggested that regulation and oversight of nuclear waste management be taken away from the Department of Energy.

"Substituting independent regulatory authority for DOE's self-regulation in radioactive waste management could enhance the credibility and quality of waste management," it said.

It suggested Congress should consider establishing a new, independent national commission for the assignment or possibly vest responsibility in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board.

Although critical of the DOE's handling of progress so far, it noted that it had made "laudable efforts" at bringing about "cultural" changes in the laboratory complex.

The DOE responded by saying that it agreed with most of the OTA's conclusions and that the cleanup was "a problem of enormous proportion and will require yet unavailable technologies and trained personnel to resolve it."

The department, meanwhile, had pre-empted the OTA with a study of its own, proposing to reduce dramatically the scope of the Nuclear Weapons Complex and make it less environmentally damaging.

Said Energy Secretary James D. Watkins: "I remain convinced that there must be compatibility between DOE's mission to produce defense materials and protection of the environment; one need not be sacrificed to obtain the other."

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