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


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.

Officials at DOE and at Westinghouse, the contractor that operates the site, counter that the above-normal levels of radiation still amount to a tiny fraction of the exposure people get in everyday life from the sun, medical X-rays and other naturally occurring sources; and they say there is no evidence that Georgia's underground water supplies are connected to the contaminated ground water of their site.

Georgia radiation officials, as well as local and national environmental groups, charge that federal guidelines underestimate radiation risks by up to 50 times. Agencies such as OTA say far too little is known about health hazards for the energy department to dismiss risks.

The Savannah River Site -- along with other major facilities at Hanford, Wash. and Rocky Flats, Colo. -- is currently shut down for safety and environmental reasons, virtually halting production any new nuclear warheads. With current disarmament trends, many argue that they should never restart.

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, in a letter last summer to DOE Secretary Watkins, opposed a new production reactor at Savannah River until the current problems are cleaned up, and added this fascinating rationale:

"I concluded that a cleanup would generate far more in economic activity than a new reactor and would provide something a new (( reactor never will: a clean and safe environment."

Indeed, an article this winter by the New York Times talked of the "new defense industry" where defense contractors in effect were following the money, shifting from their traditional roles to environmental cleanup contractors.

At first thought, this trend might seem the most hopeful sign for a cleanup. Imagine if we created the environmental remediation equivalent of the military industrial complex, or technology the equal of a Patriot missile to aid in the notoriously-difficult task of decontaminating radioactive aquifers.

But OTA and others, such as the NRDC, warn against setting off on any multi-billion dollar campaigns, clean and green or otherwise, without some fundamental changes in the Energy Department's ability to set standards and regulate itself without more oversight.

Going back to the Department's predecessor, the old Atomic Energy Commission, it was this lack of accountability and

self-regulation that more than anything created messes like Savannah River.

Weapons production reactors, for example, still are not subject to standards nearly as high as their commercial counterparts run by private utilities (which themselves have still had their share of problems); and radioactive tritium still is not regulated in federal or state discharge permits for DOE's weapons reactors.

A look at Savannah River and other sites in the weapons complex leaves one with the impression that for all the cruise missiles, smart bombs and other sophistication we boast in our capacity to hurl nuclear warheads at the enemy, we never applied similar ingenuity, money and care to the process that produced them.

Aging reactors were run, with inadequate maintenance, to the limits of their design life; wastes were often put in open seepage basins; brute force methods were used to prepare uranium for processing, attacking it with powerful acids, creating more mountains of waste.

One of the main strategies against pollution was to site places like Savannah River in the midst of huge, isolated tracts of land. Nearly 300 square miles were acquired here in Barnwell and Aiken counties, and whole villages were moved outside the boundaries. Three other sites in the weapons complex are substantially larger.

Admiral Watkins has won some praise from critics for his promises in the last few years to effect a complete "culture change" at the Energy Department, one in which "environment, safety and health objectives will now take precedence over production objectives." Environmental officials in South Carolina say cooperation from the Savannah River Site has improved dramatically.

Westinghouse and the Energy Department can point to significant cleanup progress at the site, including removal of nearly half of an estimated 450,000 pounds of toxic chemicals that had seeped into underground water at one disposal site that now is capped and growing lush grass.

Near the 51 huge tanks filled with radioactive wastes, the finishing touches are being applied to a mammoth, billion-dollar facility that will entomb the "hottest" wastes from the corroding vessels in state befitting a Pharoah.

The cavernous building's interior is solid stainless steel, backed by seven feet of concrete. Once it is complete and sealed, only robots will operate within. The very nastiest of the tank farm wastes -- about 2.5 million of a total 34 million gallons -- will be fed into 10-foot high canisters of half-inch thick stainless. Each of the 5,000 canisters is polished to jewel-like smoothness and comes with an inch-thick document attesting to all the tests it has passed for durability. Each has an individual ID number that ultimately will correspond to an identical number in the final burial ground now proposed by DOE deep within a mountain in Nevada.

Each canister will accept only a sip of the high level nuclear waste. Molten glass with which it will be mixed to stabilize it will fill 97 percent of the interior. As each is filled, a solid stainless plug will be driven into the canister mouth by a 75,000-pound press as 230,000 amp electric current momentarily turns the plug the consistency of soft plastic and welds it in place. Each canister will take about 16 hours to fill and seal. The plant, if it runs round the clock without breakdown, will take 15 years to finish its job if Savannah River never produces another ounce of waste.

It is impressive, but at the same time there are signs that the old culture at DOE persists. The site has continued to push almost frantically for a quick restart of one of its shut-down reactors, despite the fact that there is no pressing need to produce new warhead material, and despite the fact that waiting another several months would allow promised environmental controls to be put in place. A lawsuit by NRDC to delay the restart was overturned by a South Carolina federal judge and is being appealed.

Critics' worst fears were realized two months ago when an old heat exchanger in the reactor ruptured during a test and released a huge slug of radioactive tritium into the Savannah River. It was enough to violate federal drinking water standards by threefold in the river as far downstream as Savannah, 80 miles away. The restart has been delayed.

As OTA's report says, the cleanup strategies for the nuclear weapons complex are still "evolving." It will not be surprising to see total costs soar above $200 billion; and it will not be surprising to see serious debate over how clean is clean enough. For example, Steve Wright, director of environmental operations for the Savannah River Site, says it just is not scientifically warranted to try to reduce tritium to background levels in all fish and water in the area.

"Our mind set is the government will spend whatever it takes to clean up," says a South Carolina hazardous waste official; "but will the federal budget run dry? We just don't know."

Tom Horton is a senior writer for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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