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The Challenge Ahead
Long-term stewardship will be needed at the Nuclear Weapons Complex to protect health and the environment.


No matter how much money the U.S. Department of Energy spends to address radio- active and hazardous contamination at its former nuclear weapons production sites, some hazards will remain. As a result, a program of long-term stewardship will be needed to protect human health and the environment for future generations.

For nearly five decades, DOE and its predecessors engaged in a highly secretive, complex, and massive endeavor to fabricate nuclear weapons. This effort required enormous facilities, material and energy inputs, and human labor. The "weapons complex" consisted of nuclear defense, nuclear energy, and research installations. These facilities were scattered across the United States at large federal reservations and at smaller commercial sites. Some of these facilities housed nuclear weapons research, production, and testing activities. Others focused on civilian nuclear energy research and development activities. Huge laboratories were dedicated to nuclear research.

In the rush to produce the materials, components, and devices necessary to manufacture thousands of nuclear weapons, DOE paid scant attention to the environmental consequences of its actions. Waste materials from research and production activities were often buried onsite in shallow earth trenches or placed in settling ponds. At many sites, tremendous volumes of soil and groundwater were contaminated with hazardous and radioactive substances. Large volumes of poorly managed wastes leaked from damaged containment structures, and many aging facilities harboring highly radioactive materials deteriorated. For years, there was little information publicly available about these problems and little external regulation of DOE’s environmental management activities.

With the winding down of the Cold War in the late 1980s, weapons production operations ceased. Largely because of increased media attention as well as litigation ending DOE’s immunity from federal environmental enforcement, DOE turned its attention to the growing health, safety, and environmental concerns linked to past nuclear weapons production activities. Now, almost 15 years later, a third of DOE’s budget goes to its Office of Environmental Management. At $6 billion, the annual Office of Environmental Management budget is twice as big as total estimated public and private expenditures on nonfederal Superfund sites and just $1 billion less than the budget for the entire U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

DOE’s Office of Environmental Management is faced with the Herculean task of cleaning up contamination, wastes, nuclear materials, and contaminated structures at more than 100 sites in 30 states around the country. It will take decades before the department completes cleanup activities at all the sites in the weapons complex. The total price tag has been estimated at $150 billion to $200 billion, with most of this money going to five sites: Hanford, Savannah River, Rocky Flats, Oak Ridge, and the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory.

Describing the Office of Environmental Management program as a cleanup program, however, is something of a misnomer. No matter how much money is spent, some hazards will remain at more than two-thirds of the sites. Many of the sites will be home to waste storage and disposal facilities. The lack of proven technologies to address radioactive contamination, including contaminated soil and groundwater, also ensures that hazards will remain at these sites for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. DOE will not be able to walk away from these sites, nor from its past contamination problems. A program of long-term stewardship will therefore be needed at the majority of the sites in the weapons complex.

Broadly speaking, stewardship refers to physical controls, institutions, information, and other mechanisms needed to ensure protection of people and the environment, both in the short and the long term, after the cleanup of the weapons complex is considered complete. The likely elements of a stewardship program are

n Site monitoring and maintenance,

n Application and enforcement of institutional controls,

n Information management,

n Environmental monitoring.

The notion of stewardship carries with it something more than simply a list of tasks or functions to be implemented, however. It connotes a sacred responsibility to protect human health and the environment for future generations.

While defining the mission of a long-term stewardship program is simple, actually creating an enduring stewardship program is a much more difficult task. Most daunting will be to ensure that the institution charged with stewardship responsibilities has the bureaucratic, political, and financial wherewithal to successfully implement them.

It is critical that DOE begin now to consider how today’s policy decisions will affect tomorrow’s stewardship needs. Although DOE is already implementing stewardship activities at some of the smaller sites in the weapons complex, it needs to start laying the groundwork for developing a comprehensive stewardship program for all DOE sites.

The recent settlement of a lawsuit against DOE, filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council and 38 other environmental and peace organizations, is an important step in the evolution of DOE’s stewardship program. The settlement includes a commitment that DOE will conduct a study on long-term stewardship at DOE sites and will invite public comment on this important topic.

One key issue is whether DOE should continue to have a major role in stewardship of its sites or whether responsibility should be transferred to another federal or state agency. If DOE continues to have responsibility for stewardship at its sites, increased external oversight—by EPA, states, or some other agency—will be needed to hold DOE accountable and to increase public confidence that
important post-closure activities, in fact, are being implemented.

A second key issue is the scope of a stewardship program. Many contaminated sites across the United States will require post-closure care. Should a stewardship program address all contaminated sites—public and private—all federal facilities subject to Superfund, or only DOE sites? The answer to this question has important implications for what organization or organizations should implement stewardship functions, what institution should be responsible for stewardship oversight, and how a stewardship program should be created and funded.

As the agency responsible for ensuring Superfund cleanup, EPA bears an important responsibility for addressing these issues as well. Superfund is one of the primary statutes driving cleanup activities at DOE and many other contaminated sites. The increasingly frequent use of institutional controls as an integral component of site remedies and their potential application at DOE sites demand that the issue of assuring the long-term integrity of institutional controls be addressed.

Assuring this integrity could be accomplished by amending the Superfund law or by revising the major Superfund regulation, the National Contingency Plan. In fact, the Superfund reauthorization debate may well provide the best opportunity for creating a legislative stewardship mandate. After all, stewardship activities will be required not only at DOE sites, but at many Superfund sites, including those contaminated sites under the purview of other federal agencies, such as the departments of Defense, Agriculture, and Interior. Moreover, because some of the largest, most complicated, and most expensive DOE sites are on EPA’s National Priorities List, creating a stewardship program under Superfund has the advantage of addressing major DOE sites and other contaminated sites.

At least initially, federal agencies should have primary responsibility for stewardship at DOE sites, with the stewardship mission, goals, and objectives set out by Congress in federal authorizing legislation. Equally important, federal appropriations specifically earmarked for stewardship activities will be needed, both to fund the program and to confirm the federal government’s commitment to long-term stewardship.

While some federal role in stewardship will be necessary, states, localities, tribal nations, and the general public must be meaningfully involved in the development, implementation, and oversight of stewardship activities. The involvement of stakeholders in stewardship will help increase public trust in a stewardship program and will ensure much-needed external accountability. History suggests that the involvement of these other entities is critical to keeping the federal system honest.

The most important next step is to stimulate a public dialogue about the need and appropriate scope of a long-term stewardship program at the nuclear weapons complex sites. Addressing this issue is the responsibility of all stakeholders: DOE, EPA, state agencies, local governments, tribal nations, citizens’ groups, and private industry. Absent their involvement and support, it will be difficult to take the steps needed to create an effective and credible stewardship program.

To assure the creation of a successful stewardship program, a legislative or regulatory stewardship mandate is needed. Congress should enact stand-alone stewardship legislation or amend Superfund and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act to include a stewardship program for all contaminated sites requiring post-closure care. EPA should also amend the National Contingency Plan to clearly define the post-closure responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments, as well as regulated entities, at Superfund sites.

Barring these actions, some sort of administrative action should be taken. For instance, the President’s Council of Environmental Quality, jointly with EPA, could convene an interagency task force—including independent experts and representatives of major stakeholders—to develop a government-wide policy on long-term stewardship at federal and private sites regulated under Superfund and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

The secretary of energy could also create a high-level task force, including independent experts from the full panoply of stakeholders. The task force would be charged with developing a stewardship mission for DOE and making specific recommendations for integrating the costs and challenges of long-term stewardship into the major DOE internal decision making and budgeting processes.

Whether a mandate for stewardship is created now or years from now, better information on the scope, nature, and cost of stewardship is needed. One of the first tasks is to identify what types of contaminated sites will need stewardship, and determine whether one stewardship program should be created to address stewardship needs for all such sites, or whether it would be better to create separate programs for different kinds of sites. For example, one stewardship program might be created for government-owned sites and a second program for privately owned sites. A second key issue that must be addressed is stewardship roles and responsibilities. What are the specific activities that will comprise a stewardship program, and what are the proper roles for different levels of government—federal, state, and local—and for the private sector in implementing these activities? Another key question is what steps need to be taken to ensure that stewardship requirements are complied with, now and in the future.

The final set of issues that must be addressed relates to the cost of stewardship. Additional work is needed to estimate future stewardship costs for all the parties involved and to answer the thorny question of who is going to pick up the tab for stewardship activities.

Answers to these and related questions will go a long way toward laying the foundation for a sound and lasting stewardship program.

Regardless of the answers to these questions, however, one thing is clear: the need for stewardship will extend well into the distant future. Congress, DOE, EPA, and other federal and state agencies that regulate DOE must begin now to wrestle with the challenge of long-term stewardship. It is critical that the federal government address the institutional and financial implications of the need for post-closure care at contaminated sites across the country. Failure to do so could reinforce the public’s negative perception of DOE and confirm the public’s view that the federal government cannot be trusted.n

Katherine Probst is senior fellow at the Center for Risk Management, Resources for the Future, Washington, D.C. Michael H. McGovern, formerly a research associate with RFF, is now a senior analyst at the Center for Verification Research in Springfield, Virginia.1

1. This article is adapted from Long-Term Stewardship and the Nuclear Weapons Complex: The Challenge Ahead, by Katherine N. Probst and Michael H. McGovern, copyright 1998 by Resources for the Future, Washington, DC. Resources for the Future retains the copyright on this article. The full report may be ordered for $14.95 by calling (410) 516-6955, or it can be downloaded from the Resources for the Future Web site at <>.

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