The federal government spends around $6 billion each year on a program to clean up and contain the remaining hazards at Department of Energy (DOE) sites that were used for developing and building nuclear weapons during World War II and its Cold War aftermath. Most analysts agree that much of the money spent for this purpose in the 1990s was wasted; the program made minimal progress in cleaning up the sites. Nonetheless, members of Congress competed to spend as much of the money as possible to create jobs and boost their local economies. The DOE nuclear-waste-management program is arguably the biggest boondoggle in all of current pork-barrel spending.
The management of former nuclear-weapons-production sites is hindered by a complex and confusing set of federal and state laws. The laws seem to mandate restoring much of the area of nuclear-production complexes to allow residential and other ordinary forms of land use in the future. In some cases, this goal is infeasible or exorbitantly costly given current technology. In other cases, it is undesirable as a matter of sound public policy.
Because of public safety and national-security concerns, the federal government has tightly restricted access to nuclear-weapons sites for 50 years. As a result, these sites—some of which are quite large—are unique in the United States in their isolation from ordinary impacts of human activity. Some of the flora and fauna found at them is rarely found elsewhere, including many species listed as endangered or threatened under federal and state laws. The current government attempts to clean up these areas overlook the environmental value of their rare ecologies. Indeed, under current policy, the federal government could spend many billions of dollars in an effort to rehabilitate some parts of the sites in order to allow for uses that would destroy valuable species habitat.
The federal government should abandon the current nuclear-cleanup program as economically wasteful and environmentally counterproductive. It is time for a new form of stewardship strategy, emphasizing those steps necessary to protect public health from any actual threats posed by radioactive waste, while at the same time setting as a policy priority the isolation and conservation of DOE sites for their rich ecological diversity. Such a “waste-to-wilderness” strategy would give DOE a new flexibility to contain risks at existing sites at lower costs. It could save federal taxpayers many billions of dollars—perhaps as much as $1 billion to $3 billion per year. It would conserve some of America’s most wild lands without requiring new federal measures to “lock up” additional multiple-use land elsewhere.
Taxpayer advocates and environmental organizations can find common ground in the use of old nuclear-weapons sites to protect wild and rare ecologies. The only losers would be government officials who administer the present cleanup program, short-sighted politicians, and local communities that desire pork-barrel “nuclear welfare.”