The estimated cost of handling the degrading radioactive material is rising steadily — $512 billion at last count.
A year-and-a-half after a scathing Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed that the US Department of Energy (DoE) has no coherent plan in place to manage nuclear waste from weapons manufacturing piling up at more than 150 sites across the country, the DoE has made little progress in developing a safe and strategic plan to handle the waste. Meanwhile, the estimated cost of handling the material is rising steadily — $512 billion at last count — and the federal government hasn’t yet figured out how to pay for it.
And, of course, much of the waste will have to somehow remain safely stored for 10,000 years or more, a timeframe even more mind boggling than the size of the debt.
The Hanford Site by the Columbia River in Washington State was built during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project and used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. It is currently the most contaminated nuclear site in the country but the DoE doesn’t yet have a long-range plan for handling waste at the decommissioned site. Photo by Scott Butner.
In a letter to Congress in June, GAO said the DoE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) — which is charged with building facilities to treat millions of gallons of radioactive waste, and remediating contaminated soil and water at nuclear weapons construction sites — needs to use factors such as costs and risks to human health and the environment, in determining which cleanup projects to focus on.
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The GAO has reported in the past that the DoE’s cleanup policy, “which governs the EM cleanup program, does not direct how EM should make environmental cleanup decisions, including how to make risk-informed cleanup decisions,” even though GAO and DoE’s own inspector general had been recommending such an approach since the 1990s.
The United States has about 14,000 metric tons of high-level waste and spent nuclear fuel from defense-related activities from the World War II era through the 1980s. This waste is currently stored in facilities in five states and managed by the DoE. EM is responsible for handling most of the contamination at 107 sites. The cleanup cost for these sites is now estimated at $406 billion, up from an estimated $163 billion a decade ago. (Other DoE offices are responsible for $106 billion more in waste handling.)
“The increase in costs is driven by the fact that facilities are continuing to degrade while awaiting disposition, which ultimately drives up stabilization costs and final Deactivation & Decommissioning costs,” DoE reported to Congress last year.
The funding deficit accumulated over decades, during Republican and Democratic administrations. Since the US military created the waste, funding and oversight of its management comes mainly from congressional armed services committees. Unfortunately, the committees are mainly concerned with funding the armed forces of today and tomorrow, not cleaning up yesterday’s garbage.
The defense bill passed by Congress on December 15 does contain some remediation measures for nuclear waste, but it’s not nearly enough. It authorizes $6.48 billion for clean-up. The bill also starts competitive and university grant programs to develop technology to support the clean-ups. It directs DoE to develop a comprehensive strategy within a year to determine the type and quantity of defense nuclear waste it will generate, plans to treat, store, and dispose of it, and to look for potential disposal facilities. Within two years, DoE would have to develop a computer system for the process. GAO will evaluate the effort.