Federal Nuclear Clean Up: $150 Billion

Cleaning up the government’s nuclear weapons sites has become a vast sinkhole for taxpayer dollars. The Department of Energy (DOE) spends about $6 billion a year on environmental clean up of federal nuclear sites. These sites were despoiled in the decades following World War II with little notice taken by Congress. Then during the 1980s, a series of reports lambasted DOE for its lax safety and environmental standards, and federal polices began to change.

Since 1990, federal taxpayers have paid more than $150 billion to clean up the mess from the government’s nuclear sites, based on my calculations. Unfortunately, many more billions will be likely needed in coming years, partly because DOE management continues to be so poor.

A 2003 GAO report (GAO-03-593) found that “DOE’s past efforts to treat and dispose of high-level waste have been plagued with false starts and failures.” And a 2008 GAO report (GAO-08-1081) found that 9 out of 10 major clean up projects “experienced cost increases and schedule delays in their life cycle baseline, ranging from $139 million for one project to more than $9 billion for another.”

The largest of the nuclear clean up sites is Hanford in Washington State. One facility at the site has ballooned in cost from $4.3 billion in 2000 to $13.4 billion today (GAO-13-38). Overall, $19 billion has been spent cleaning up the Hanford site since 1989, and the effort continues to face huge problems (GAO-15-354).

The Washington Post reported yesterday:

A nearly completed government facility intended to treat the radioactive byproducts of nuclear weapons production is riddled with design flaws that could put the entire operation at risk of failure, according to a leaked internal report.

A technical review of the treatment plant on the grounds of the former Hanford nuclear site identified hundreds of “design vulnerabilities” and other weaknesses, some serious enough to lead to spills of radioactive material.

The draft report is the latest in a series of blows to the clean-up effort at Hanford, the once-secret government reservation in eastern Washington state where much of the nation’s plutonium stockpile originated. Engineers have struggled for years to come up with a safe method for disposing of Hanford’s millions of gallons of high-level radioactive waste, much of which is stored in leaky underground tanks.

Obviously this is a complex task, but a former Clinton administration DOE official told the newspaper that DOE:

“has proven to be incapable of managing a project of this magnitude and importance,” Alvarez said. “The agency has shown a long-standing intolerance for whistleblowers while conducting faith-based management of its contractors regardless of poor performance. This has bred a culture in which no safety misdeed goes unrewarded.”