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02/24/2014 - 16:06

A primer: Military nuclear wastes in the United States

Robert Alvarez

Robert Alvarez

A senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, Robert Alvarez served as senior policy adviser to the Energy Department's secretary and deputy assistant secretary for national security and...

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Research, development, testing, and production of US nuclear weapons occurred at thousands of sites in nearly every state, as well as Puerto Rico, the Marshall Islands, Johnston Atoll, and Christmas Island in the Pacific. Between 1940 and 1996, the United States spent approximately $5.8 trillion dollars to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. As a result, the nuclear weapons program created one of the largest radioactive waste legacies in the world—rivaling the former Soviet Union's.

US nuclear weapons sites—many of them under the aegis of the Energy Department—constitute some of the most contaminated zones in the Western hemisphere, and attempts to remediate those sites are now approaching their fifth decade. It is the most costly, complex, and risky environmental cleanup effort ever undertaken, dwarfing the cleanup of Defense Department sites and the Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program. Long-term liability estimates range from approximately $300 billion to $1 trillion. Site remediation and disposition of radioactive detritus are expected to continue well into this century. After that, long-term stewardship of profoundly contaminated areas will pose a challenge spanning hundreds of centuries.

Research, development, testing and production of nuclear weapons by the United States created:

The human health legacy of the US nuclear weapons program is also quite significant. As of February 2014, more than 100,000 sick nuclear weapons workers have received more than $10 billion in compensation following exposure to ionizing radiation and other hazardous materials. 

Even today, the radioactive waste from the dawn of the nuclear age remains a significant challenge to public health in highly populated areas. For instance, in 1973 a large amount of uranium processing wastes, generated to make the first nuclear weapons at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis, was illegally dumped in a municipal landfill in a nearby suburb.  The landfill is experiencing the latest of at least two subsurface fires over the past 21 years and lies on a floodplain approximately 1.2 miles from the Missouri River.

The dump contains the largest single amount of thorium 230 in the country and possibly the world. With a half-life of more than 75,000 years, it is comparable in toxicity to plutonium. Even though these concerns were repeatedly raised with the US Environmental Protection Agency, the agency issued a Record of Decision in 2008 that allows for “in place disposal” of these wastes, subject to institutional controls and with a cap over radiologically contaminated areas. Lost in this process is an important warning by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences in 2000 that "engineered barriers and institutional controls—are inherently failure prone.”

The radiological legacy of nuclear weapons will be with us for a very long time.