A Cost Higher Than the Peace Dividend Price Tag Mounts to Clean Up Nuclear Weapons Sites

February 23, 1992|By TOM HORTON

Augusta, Ga. -- A sobering way to view the hoped-for "peace dividend" from the winding down of the Cold War is to follow Atomic Road 19 miles south from here to the Department of Energy's Savannah River Site, where plutonium and tritium, the feedstocks for the mightiest nuclear arsenal ever assembled, have been produced for nearly half a century.

In one area of the vast reservation on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River sit rows of partially-buried steel tanks, 51 in all, placed there as "temporary" storage for the residues from decades of bomb-making. Each contains mixtures that include some of the highest-level radioactive wastes in existence. Each is larger than the dome of the U.S. Capitol. Some have already sprung leaks.

The tank farm is only a part of the cleanup nightmare facing the Savannah River Site; and Savannah River in turn represents only a fraction of what could be hundreds of billions of dollars in environmental bills coming due nationwide as the shroud of government secrecy around our nuclear weapons-making lifts.

In 1939, Niels Bohr, the Nobel laureate in atomic physics and adviser to the Manhattan Project, maintained that an atom bomb could not be built without "turning the country into a gigantic factory." In essence, that is what America did to achieve nuclear supremacy, creating a nationwide complex of 15 major and dozens of minor sites employing nearly 150,000 people and covering more than 2,000 square miles (about the size of Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard Counties) of land in 13 states.

The only products of the weapons complex on view to the public were the sleek, polished missiles and awesome thermonuclear warheads that lent world-shattering potency to our gleaming fleets of submarines and fighter jets. But more recently the guts of 50 years of weapons making are going on display as environmental and safety problems have led to shutdowns of major parts of the complex.

The arsenal that many credit with winning the Cold War has "come at a price that few who promoted this enterprise could have anticipated . . . the release of vast quantities of hazardous chemicals and radionuclides to the environment," concludes a recent analysis by Congress's office of Technology Assessment (OTA). Air, ground water, surface water, sediments and soil, as well as vegetation and wildlife, have been contaminated at most, if not all Department of Energy sites, OTA said after reviewing the DOE's own environmental surveys undertaken in 1987 and 1988.

The costs of putting all this aright are as shifting and subject to debate as the size of the peace dividend (estimated recently by Republicans in Congress at $50 billion in the next five years, and at $100 billion by the Democrats). It will be several more years before surveys at all DOE sites have been completed and the full scope of contamination is known.

Current estimates for the cleanup range from $100 billion to $200 billion, enough to swallow whole any anticipated peace dividend. Another way to think of such a bill: it would add as much as $3 million to the cost of each nuclear warhead this country has ever produced.

The Department of Energy's secretary, Admiral James D. Watkins, has stated that new cleanup technologies under development by DOE could substantially reduce costs; but both OTA and the General Accounting Office (GAO) remain skeptical. The GAO has told Congress it has "not seen any basis or justification" for the Admiral's optimism.

OTA was more damning in its report, "Complex Cleanup -- The Environmental Legacy of Nuclear Weapons Production:" "The prospects for effective cleanup of the Weapons Complex in the next several decades are poor. . . ." And the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that has sued DOE numerous times over problems with the nuclear weapons complex, recently blasted the department for the growing, multi-billion dollar gaps between its projected cleanup needs and its budget requests.

From a national perspective, the problems of the weapons complex may seem mainly a budget crisis, but closer to sites like Savannah River there are other pressing concerns.

The state of Georgia routinely has documented levels of radionuclides, mainly tritium and cesium-137 at levels well above normal in Savannah River fish, in rainfall and in milk from local dairies. ("Normal" or background levels are those present worldwide from past decades of above-ground nuclear testing). The state also is concerned that radioactivity contaminating trillions of gallons of underground water at the Savannah River Site eventually will move into southeastern Georgia drinking water supplies.

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