By all accounts, the United States faces a bill of more than $200 billion to clean up the mess created by nuclear-weapons production during the cold war. More than half this massive sum of tax dollars must be spent on a single item: the environmental and waste-management problems created by the chemical extraction of plutonium fuel irradiated in nuclear reactors.
This process - called reprocessing - resulted in $100 million gallons of highly radioactive waste stored in huge tanks at the Savannah River site in South Carolina and the Hanford reservation in Washington State. Some parts of this waste contain explosive materials; others generate flammable gasses. An explosion in one of these tanks could produce massive damage and widespread radioactive contamination.
Despite this sorry history, the Department of Energy is now trying to resume reprocessing under the guise of "environmental management." Earlier this year, for example, DOE restarted a four-decade-old reprocessing plant at the Savannah River site. This summer, an experimental reprocessing plant in Idaho commenced operations. Both facilities are funded from DOE's cleanup budget.
Not only will these facilities drain millions from already strained budgets to address the cold war's environmental legacy, but they will end up increasing the volume of radioactive wastes. At the same time reprocessing plants will increase the stockpile of separated plutonium, which poses a nuclear proliferation threat. US taxpayers will end up spending even more money to put this surplus material into nonweapons-usable forms.
Nonetheless, DOE claims that reprocessing is needed because some irradiated nuclear fuel stored underwater in pools is corroding. That problem exists because of DOE's mismanagement, particularly the sloppy shutdown of the nuclear-weapons complex at the end of the cold war.
Fortunately, this corroding spent fuel can be stored in dry casks in a manner far safer than reprocessing. Even DOE's calculations show that reprocessing would cause more environmental damage and greater risks to workers and the public than any other option.
Why then is the nation pursuing dangerous and outmoded reprocessing technologies? The main reason is to keep tax dollars flowing for projects with which the weapons-production bureaucracy and politicians who thrive on radioactive pork are comfortable.
Spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on resuming the most environmentally damaging cold-war technology is the dirty secret in DOE's cleanup budget. If the Clinton administration is serious about keeping its commitment to address the grave damage caused by nuclear weapons production in communities around the country, it should stop reprocessing and transfer the funds to real environmental programs.
*Susan Gordon is director of the Military Production Network, a national alliance of groups from communities located near US nuclear weapons facilities.