The Overlooked Costs of Nuclear Weapons Production

Attention to nuclear waste management is vital to any nuclear weapons program. 

It has been almost 80 years since the launch of the Manhattan Project, in which the United States designed the world’s first nuclear weapons. While the US stopped producing new nuclear weapons three decades ago, its toxic legacy lives on. Soil and water near nuclear weapon production and testing sites across the US are contaminated with radioactive materials. The US Department of Energy, which is responsible for managing these sites, currently plans to bury 34 metric tons of this highly toxic radioactive waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), a geologic repository in New Mexico. However, according to the Government Accountability Office’s recent report, this facility is projected to run out of space by 2025, long before the majority of this waste can be processed and buried.

Rather than finally addressing this waste inventory, the US is now poised to add to it. The 2021 defense budget provides $1.36 billion in funding for the production and support of new plutonium pits—softball-sized spheres of radioactive material that constitute the main ingredient of a nuclear weapon. The production of new plutonium pits is sure to create new nuclear waste and contamination. This would add to the already large waste inventories at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, where pit productions are planned. While the defense budget includes funding for this production, the costs of waste disposal and clean-up are essentially absent from this debate.

I grew up in Richland, Washington, a small city full of tumbleweeds along a stretch of the Columbia River, but most notable for hosting the Hanford nuclear material production site. To this day, the area experiences the lasting effects of nuclear weapon production. For nearly half a century, this facility produced hundreds of tons of plutonium, enough for tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Plutonium production was finally halted in the late 1980s, but the site left 56 million gallons of radioactive waste and its surroundings heavily contaminated with radioactive material. Alongside the heated debate about whether Richland High School should abandon its famous mushroom cloud mascot, this contamination and its effects on the health of residents remain a top community concern. The site has a history of leaking nuclear waste into nearby bodies of water. A massive clean-up project was kicked-off in 1989, but relatively little has been accomplished since then and recent estimates peg the total costs of clean-up at $16.8 billion. Therefore, when considering the production of new nuclear weapon components, these long-term costs cannot be ignored.

While the costs and strategic implications of nuclear arsenal “modernization” are regularly debated, associated nuclear waste issues are commonly overlooked.

While the costs and strategic implications of nuclear arsenal “modernization” are regularly debated, associated nuclear waste issues are commonly overlooked. One reason is their low visibility. The nuclear weapons policy community focuses on issues of strategic deterrence and military power with limited attention to the long-term national security threats posed by nuclear waste. Additionally, since nuclear contamination impact occurs gradually and locally, damages to the environment and community health rarely draw national attention until well after the fact, making it difficult to conclusively attribute responsibility to the contamination. Further, the environmental remediation and nuclear waste disposal are extremely lengthy and expensive processes. Even when a nuclear waste clean-up project is completed, the work leaves subsequent concerns. For example, despite the arguably successful remediation efforts at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado, nearby communities allege that clean-up was incomplete leaving the surrounding areas still contaminated. All of these intractable problems and other following issues are easier to ignore than to deal with. As a result, the aftermath of nuclear arsenal modernization efforts—growth of already unsustainable nuclear waste inventories and the environmental impact of nuclear contamination on front-line communities—is often disregarded.

It is time for proponents of nuclear modernization to consider its effects on the environment and nuclear waste inventories proactively. Nuclear waste management should be explicitly included in any modernization budgeting, since the history of US weapons production shows that these costs will be both vast and inevitable. Further, policymakers, from legislative offices to think tanks, must stop ignoring nuclear waste issues and engage with advocacy and front-line communities. The US should never hesitate when it comes to nuclear waste management. We need a new and well-funded research program to develop better, faster, and more efficient nuclear clean-up processes, so communities like Richland can finally move past their decades-long challenges with these issues. Additionally, before the US considers restarting plutonium pit production, the lack of progress made on the associated waste and contamination issues since the production was halted should be carefully studied.

When I explain where I am from, Richland is always more than the city with almost no rain compared to Seattle. It is a city where neighbors, friends and friends’ parents work for the Hanford clean-up project. More than the news, it is part of our daily lives. It is time that the nuclear waste management issue receives the attention it deserves. Thirty years of missed opportunities do not bode well for the future of this country in many different ways, but now it is time for solid action.

Jee Sol (Rosemary) Kim is a graduate from Colby College with a Global Studies and Government double major. She focuses on nuclear waste, Korean Peninsula relationship, and International Relations issues in nuclear weapon policy. As a Research Analyst, she brings +7 years of experience in research and analysis in a variety of areas, as well as project management.