Public Release: 

Long-Term Stewardship Of DOE's Nuclear Weapons Complex Addressed At RFF Workshop

Resources for the Future (RFF)

WASHINGTON, DC -- More than 40 experts on risk management, land use and the nation's nuclear weapons complex gathered at Resources for the Future (RFF) to discuss the challenges faced in assuring protection from risks to human health and the environment posed by hazards remaining at the nation's nuclear weapons production sites once the United States Department of Energy (DOE) completes its major cleanup activities.

Held on January 16-17, 1997, and hosted by RFF's Center for Risk Management, the two-day workshop addressed long-term stewardship -- the development of institutions, information, and strategies to assure protection of people and the environment well into the future. Once DOE completes the monumental task of cleaning up and managing the vast quantities of hazardous and radioactive materials left behind from decades of nuclear weapons production in 34 states, the next major challenge will be to assure long-term stewardship.

Currently, DOE spends approximately $6 billion each year for environmental management activities. Although a recent DOE initiative aims to accomplish much of the cleanup within 10 years, this unprecedented task may ultimately require decades to complete at a projected cost to taxpayers of more than $200 billion, according to some estimates.

"Regardless of the time and resources invested, portions of many sites in the nation's nuclear weapons complex will not be returned to a state safe enough for unrestricted use," said Katherine Probst, workshop coordinator and a senior fellow in RFF's Center for Risk Management. "In fact, after all planned cleanup activities have been completed, some site areas will remain highly contaminated, support long-term storage and disposal facilities for dangerous wastes and materials, or harbor uncertain levels of residual contamination."

The nuclear arms race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union resulted in a vast research, production, and testing network that is known as the nuclear weapons complex. During half a century of operations, tens of thousands of nuclear warheads were manufactured and more than one thousand were detonated. At its peak, the complex consisted of 16 major sites, including vast reservations of land in Nevada, Idaho, Washington, and South Carolina; national laboratories in New Mexico and California; and other facilities in Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee where weapons components were produced.

In its drive to build large numbers of nuclear weapons, the U.S. government based its production decisions on expediency to ensure national security, with threats to health, safety and the environment accorded secondary importance. With the arms race over and weapons production severely curtailed, DOE is now focused on cleaning up over 100 sites across the country, many of which harbor widespread contamination of soil and water resulting from mismanaged radioactive materials and toxic chemicals.

"With a completion strategy for cleaning up most sites in the nuclear weapons complex within 10 years, now is the time to look ahead at what's next," said Alvin Alm, assistant secretary for environmental management at DOE. "We need to begin driving toward a goal for long-term stewardship that is flexible enough to accommodate changes in public opinion, technology, the health effects evidence, and budget allocations, among other uncertainties. We have to be able to assure protection not just in the next fiscal year but well into the next century."

Many questions regarding long-term stewardship addressed at the workshop include: Do our obligations to future generations compel us to institute a long-term stewardship program? What are the desirable characteristics of a viable long-term stewardship program? What is the appropriate role of state and local governments? What are the long-term implications if a stewardship program fails?

Likely components of a long-term stewardship program discussed include: reliable institutional controls to prevent inappropriate land and ground-water use; maintenance of waste disposal facilities to ensure continued containment of disposed wastes; establishment and preservation of information systems to keep future populations apprised of site hazards; and long-term surveillance and monitoring of remaining hazards.

Workshop participants included: Alvin Alm, DOE's assistant secretary for environmental management; Tara O'Toole, DOE's assistant secretary for its Office of Environment Safety and Health; Roger Kasperson, provost of Clark University; Russell Jim, manager of environmental restoration for Yakima Nation; Joe King, city manager of Richland, Washington; and, Terry Davies, director of RFF's Center for Risk Management.

A summary of the workshop will be available in February, and a discussion paper outlining the need for and possible structure of a long-term stewardship program will be issued by RFF in the Spring of 1997. Both will be posted to RFF's internet site at http://www.rff.org.

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Resources for the Future (RFF) is an independent, nonprofit organization that aims to provide accurate, objective information to policy makers, legislators, public opinion leaders, environmentalists, and the public to help them responsibly meet the nation's and the world's long-term environmental and economic needs. For the past 45 years, researchers at RFF have analyzed issues involving forests, water, energy, minerals, transportation, sustainable development, and air pollution. They also have examined, from a variety of perspectives, such topics as government regulation, risk, ecosystems and biodiversity, climate, hazardous waste management, technology, and outer space. RFF neither lobbies nor takes positions on specific legislative or regulatory proposals, and its research staff represents one of the largest groups of economists and policy analysts devoted to environmental and natural resource issues working under one roof anywhere in the world. RFF's Center for Risk Management performs research, policy analysis, and outreach related to the management of risks to health and the environment. Its research focuses on three basic questions: What are the most important risks to address? What are the most effective, efficient, and equitable methods for dealing with risks? How can the implementation of risk reduction programs be improved?

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