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Overhaul urged for US nuclear weapons cleanup

Effort likely to take another 50 years, cost more than $500 billion

by Jeff Johnson
March 7, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 10

Photo of a cluster of people wearing protective gear.
Credit: US Department of Energy
The Hanford Site in Washington state is among the most difficult still to be cleaned up.

An expert science panel is calling for the US Department of Energy to overhaul science and technology development for cleaning up the nation’s nuclear weapons sites.

The huge cleanup program has already taken some 40 years and will likely take at least 50 more, according to a report released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on March 4. Cleanup has cost $170 billion to date and is likely to draw at least another $377 billion, according to panel chair and Columbia University engineering professor Patricia J. Culligan.

The DOE is responsible for cleaning up 107 sites used for nuclear weapons development, testing, and production during the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The formal program began in the 1980s and has cleaned up 91 sites so far. The remaining 16 sites present the thorniest radioactive- and hazardous-waste challenges.

To address those challenges, the National Academies report recommends an independent assessment of the cleanup program’s current lifecycle costs and schedules from a government engineering organization, such as the US Army Corps of Engineers. That review should focus on identifying key remaining technical risks and uncertainties.

Noting that the environmental management science spending has decreased over the last 15 years, the report also recommends an increased science budget as well as a new role for DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), which invests in and develops innovative solutions for complex science challenges. ARPA-E should get new funds for this work rather than “cannibalize” existing funds, Culligan says.

The report also says DOE cleanup science and technology development has been “ad hoc and uncoordinated” and has focused on short-term needs, driven by contractors seeking site-specific solutions. It urges better coordination and more holistic solutions.

The report also notes, however, that over the last 20 years 9 other assessments have issued similar recommendations.

In response, DOE says it is currently developing a new integrated science and technology program across all sites and, as it moves forward, will take the academies findings into consideration.


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