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Integrated Weapons-Site Cleanup

The Department of Energy is using ecosystem management to help clean up our nation's nuclear weapons sites.


In 1951, the Atomic Energy Commission, forerunner to the present-day U.S. Department of Energy, was looking for a place to test its newly developing arsenal of nuclear weapons. It selected a remote tract of the Mojave Desert in southern Nevada, 50 miles (80 kilometers) northwest of Las Vegas. For the next four decades, the Nevada Test Site would serve as the nation’s nuclear testing ground.

The Nevada Test Site covers 1,350 square miles (3,500 square kilometers), which is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. Until 1962, when aboveground testing was banned, the Atomic Energy Commission conducted about 100 aboveground nuclear tests on the site. During the next three decades, until nuclear testing was banned altogether in 1994, more than 800 underground tests were conducted on the site. Today, the site is largely used for disposing of low-level DOE wastes. The Yucca Mountain site, which is being studied as a possible respository for high-level nuclear wastes from nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors throughout the United States, straddles the test site’s western perimeter.

The Nevada Test Site is one of 140 sites in DOE’s nuclear weapons complex—which includes such familiar names as Savannah River, Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Idaho Falls—that are remnants of the Cold War legacy. Now that the Cold War is over, DOE has begun cleaning up the Nevada Test Site.

The Nevada Test Site contains more contaminated surface rock, soil, and groundwater than any other site in the DOE weapons complex. The amount of radioactivity in the environment from weapons testing is estimated at 300 million curies, spread over about 300 square miles (800 square kilometers). DOE’s goal is to remove enough of the contamination from the soil and groundwater to make the environment safe for future use. Cleanup began in 1997 and will extend to 2007, at a cost of $1.3 billion.1

Future uses being considered include developing the site for producing clean-burning fuels, decontaminating low-level nuclear wastes, or training emergency workers who deal with highly destructive weapons.


As part of the restoration of the Nevada Test Site, DOE developed a resource management plan to ensure the long-term sustainability of the site.2 The main goals of the plan are to

n Manage and sustain natural resources.

n Maintain native ecosystems, biota, and habitats.

n Protect undisturbed areas.

n Develop baseline environmental information needed for cleanup, land use planning, and ecosystem management.

n Site new facilities only on environmentally suitable, previously disturbed lands.

n Foster sustainable economic development.

Traditional resource management focuses on managing a single resource such as water, livestock, or timber. Wildlife management and operating reservoirs for navigation and flood control are traditional resource management approaches. Ecosystem management, which is at the heart of DOE’s resource management plan, focuses instead on managing the ecosystem as a whole, including its fauna, flora, soils, groundwater, and air. Ecosystem management recognizes that humans are a fundamental component of ecosystems; it appreciates the importance of the diversity and complexity of ecosystems; and it strives to maintain the processes that tie the physical, chemical, and biological components of the ecosystem together.3

As a resource tool, ecosystem management has been applied successfully in a variety of other settings.4 In the Pacific Northwest, for example, where logging has abused forests and streams for decades, ecosystem management is being used to identify sensitive areas that should be restored, areas where logging should be banned, and areas where logging can occur, provided it balances environmental and economic objectives.

Similarly, ecosystem management has been successfully applied to livestock grazing in arid lands to help restore abused sensitive habitats and to avoid further damage.

An analogy may help to further clarify the difference between traditional resource management and ecosystem management. Think of traditional resource management as like trying to fix an automobile carburetor without even turning on the engine. Ecosystem management, on the other hand, is like making fine-tuning corrections while the engine is running. A good mechanic will listen to the engine, adjust the carburetor, and make any other changes necessary—such as replacing spark plugs—to make the engine run smoothly and quietly.

An ecosystem manager, like our good mechanic, has a holistic perspective. Rather than just looking after the trees or the wildlife or water quality, the ecosystem manager considers each of these, along with other components, as part of a greater whole; and he or she manages the whole to ensure it is operating smoothly and efficiently. 


DOE has begun inventorying natural resources at the Nevada Test Site, and it is protecting critical areas such as habitat for endangered species. Natural springs and seeps, for instance, play an especially important role in desert ecosystems and are therefore being restored to as near natural conditions as practical.

DOE is also removing soil from contaminated land and is reclaiming these disturbed sites for eventual reuse. By restoring contaminated lands and using them for further development, DOE can avoid development on ecologically valuable, undisturbed lands, which have not been contaminated.

The involvement of stakeholders—such as the state of Nevada, nearby communities, other federal land managers, and area landownershas long been a missing element in planning for the Nevada Test Site. Applying the ecosystem management model helps correct this problem. Today, regional stakeholders are contributing to decisions about economic development and cultural, social, and long-term environmental trends that will shape the Nevada Test Site’s future. While DOE is currently using ecosystem management only for the Nevada Test Site, the approach is also an appropriate tool for cleaning up other contaminated DOE lands. Ecosystem management can be used to assess environmental risks, set cleanup priorities, help determine the appropriate level of cleanup needed for various land uses, and evaluate alternative solutions for remediating contaminated land.

Some DOE managers will doubtless view ecosystem management as overly problematic, especially given the degree of intradepartmental, interagency, and stakeholder cooperation required to make ecosystem management succeed. Further complicating the application of ecosystem management is DOE’s notoriously fragmented bureaucracy; coordination among its programs is contrary to prevailing, long-established DOE custom. Moreover, the attitude of openness to public and private stakeholders, which is integral for effective ecosystem management, is contrary to DOE’s history of isolating itself from outsiders.

Even at the Nevada Test Site, these issues are not fully resolved. For example, the Timber Mountain Caldera National Natural Landmark on the Nevada Test Site remains off-limits to visitors even though a number of people have expressed interest in being allowed access to the area’s unique geological features. Likewise, some mountainous areas on the site that support herds of desert bighorn sheep large enough for hunting are closed to the public despite efforts of the Nevada Division of Wildlife to have the areas opened for public use.

Nonetheless, progress toward incorporating outside recommendations into DOE decision making is occurring at the Nevada Test Site, and there are decided grounds for hope.


Change often comes slowly and stubbornly within traditionally conservative organizations like DOE, and progress in using ecosystem management to reverse outdated customs cannot be taken for granted. Thanks to DOE’s commitment and encouragement from other agencies, however, ecosystem management at the Nevada Test Site is becoming a reality, and the prospects for implementing it at other DOE sites are encouraging.

DOE’s success joins a growing number of initiatives throughout the federal government that are employing an ecosystem approach for managing our nation’s resources.5 Collectively, these efforts can help sustain public lands for the benefit and enjoyment of generations to come.n

Charles R. Malone is an environmental scientist at the state of Nevada’s Nuclear Waste Project Office, in Carson City, Nevada.

1. DOE, Accelerating Cleanup: Focus on 2006, DOE/EM-0327 (Washington, DC: DOE, 1997); DOE, Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Site-Specific Plan: Fiscal Years 1994-1998 (Las Vegas: DOE Nevada Field Office, 1997).

2. DOE, "Framework for the Resource Management Plan," in 1996 Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Nevada Test site and Off-Site Locations in the State of Nevada, NV DOE/EIS 0243 (Las Vegas: DOE Nevada Field Office, 1996).

3. D.S. Slocombe, "Environmental Planning, Ecosystem Science, and Ecosystem Approaches for Integrating Environment and Development," Environmental Management 17 (1993), pp. 289-303; R.E. Grumbine, "What Is Ecosystem Management?" Conservation Biology 8 (1994), pp. 27-38.

4. S.L. Yafee et al., Ecosystem Management in the United States (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1996).

5. Interagency Ecosystem Management Task Force, The Ecosystem Approach: Healthy Ecosystems and Sustainable Economies (Washington, DC: White House Office of Environmental Policy, 1995-1996).

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