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:
- More than 3 billion metric tons of uranium mining and milling wastes.
- More than 1 million cubic meters of transuranic radioactive wastes.
- Approximately 6 million cubic meters of low-level radioactive wastes.
- Approximately 4.7 billion cubic meters of contaminated soil and groundwater (according to an Energy Department document unavailable online).
- More than 10,000 radiation-contaminated structures such as uranium processing and enrichment plants, radiochemical processing and storage facilities and laboratories.
- About 100 million gallons of high-level radioactive wastes, considered among the most dangerous, left in aging tanks larger that most state capitol domes. More than a third of some 200 tanks have leaked and threaten groundwater and waterways such as the Columbia River.
- Areas contaminated by more than 1,054 nuclear weapons tests, 219 of which involved aboveground detonations. As of 1992, underground shots released about 300 million curies of radioactive materials at the Nevada Test Site—making it the most radioactively contaminated area in the United States. Areas in the Republic of the Marshall Islands remain uninhabitable from US aboveground tests in the 1940s and 1950s.
- More than 700,000 metric tons of excess nuclear weapons production materials, in addition to hundreds of tons of weapons-usable plutonium and highly enriched uranium.
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.