The cleanup of radioactive waste left over from decades of nuclear weapons production will take longer than the Cold War itself and cost between $230 billion and $350 billion, the government estimated Monday.
The largest environmental cleanup ever undertaken still is expected to leave hundreds of acres contaminated with buried debris and cordoned off from the public. Many of the other areas would be suitable only for limited uses.
The staggering cost estimate by the Energy Department envisions a middle-of-the-road approach to cleaning up the legacy from nuclear research, production and testing during the decades of the Cold War.
“The future use of the land and facilities will largely determine if the cost is higher or lower,” said Thomas Grumbly, assistant secretary for environmental management.
He said in many cases it is not technically possible to return all parts of a facility to pristine conditions.
The Energy Department review, which was sent to Congress, estimates that it will cost $230 billion to decontaminate more than 80 facilities in 30 states with most of the money spent over the next 40 years.
Nearly $19 billion would be spent on cleanup at the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory - a priority of both Gov. Phil Batt and his predecessor, Cecil Andrus.
But that scenario envisions productivity gains of 20 percent over the next five years among waste cleanup contractors. Such improvements in efficiency are considered by many to be optimistic.
Grumbly said if such improvements are not achieved, the costs would soar to $350 billion over the life of the cleanup effort.
Most of the cleanup costs would occur over the next 40 years, but work at many of the sites would continue until 2070.
Even then, some major facilities would have permanently buried and “capped” contaminated waste and debris.
Some nuclear sites and radioactive material aren’t even included in the cost figure. Cleanup of soil and ground water at the government’s nuclear bomb test site, for example, is not part of the plan because there’s no technology available to do the job within reasonable cost, officials said.
And the figures do not account for the government’s future management of some 50 tons of plutonium still needed as part of the Defense Department’s active nuclear stockpile. Eventually some of that likely will be declared excess and come under the cleanup program.
The cost estimates are substantially higher than the Energy Department’s proposed budget for cleanup and environmental restoration, which has been around $6 billion a year. Over the next five years, the cleanup estimate exceeds the department’s planned spending for cleanup by $7 billion. And Congress has indicated it wants to cut, not increase, spending on the program.
There was no explanation of how the shortfall would be overcome.
The department said 70 percent of the cleanup money would be spent at INEL and four other sites: the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington, the Savannah River facility in South Carolina, the Rocky Flats plant in Colorado and the Oak Ridge reservation in Tennessee.
The most costly cleanup tasks are expected at Hanford and the Savannah River complex, which together account for 42 percent of the expected cleanup spending.
Hanford has posed a particularly perplexing cleanup challenge. The plan envisions, among other tasks, dismantling nine mothballed reactors, once used to make plutonium, and burying the reactor cores; entombing a massive concrete plutonium processing plant; and draining more than 170 underground waste tanks and then capping them.
In all, the department estimates 33 million cubic yards of radioactive waste, including used nuclear fuel, plutonium dust and various liquid wastes, will have to be disposed of. Much of it is expected to be encased into glass and buried in specially designed vaults.
Hundreds of tons of equipment and debris from contaminated buildings - often the entire structures - will have to be torn down and disposed of or buried in place, officials said.
At other less contaminated sites buildings will be cleaned and in many cases turned over for civilian uses.
The cleanup plan assumes construction of a centralized underground disposal site for high-level nuclear wastes, although no such site has yet been approved, much less built.
A proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is being vigorously challenged.
This sidebar appeared with the story: THE COST Assuming planned productivity increases can be achieved and overall costs held to $230 billion, the review estimates spending requirements at: Hanford Reservation near Richland, $48.7 billion. Savannah River complex near Aiken, S.C., $48.2 billion. Oak Ridge reservation in Tennessee, $24.8 billion. Rocky Flats near Denver, $22.5 billion. INEL, $18.7 billion.