The Cost to Clean Up America’s Cold War Nuclear Waste Jumps to $377 Billion

The bill for a half century of nuclear weapons production is growing fast.

“The GAO [Government Accountability Office] estimates the EM’s “environmental liability grew by almost $105 billion, from $163 billion to $268 billion.”That’s the equivalent of taking one step forward and then being pushed seven steps back.”

BY popularmechanics.com February 5, 2019

The United States developed and built tens of thousands of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. A new report by the General Accounting Office (GAO) estimates the total cleanup cost for the radioactive contamination incurred by developing and producing these weapons at a staggering $377 billion, a number that jumped by more than $100 billion in just one year.

Most people think of the U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) and think of oil rigs, coal mines, solar energy panels, and wind farms. While the DoE does handle energy production—including nuclear power—it also handles the destructive side of nuclear energy. A large part of the DoE’s portfolio over the past several decades has been the handling of nuclear weapons research, development, and production. The DoE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) is responsible for cleaning up radioactive and hazardous waste left over from nuclear weapons production and energy research at DoE facilities.

Mock-ups of Poseidon Missiles
Polaris and Poseidon missiles. GETTY IMAGES//HULTON DEUTSCH

In 1967 at the height of the U.S.–Soviet nuclear arms race, the U.S. nuclear stockpile totaled 31,255 weapons of all types. Today, that number stands at just 6,550. Although the U.S. has deactivated and destroyed 25,000 nuclear weapons, their legacy is still very much alive. Nuclear weapons were developed and produced at more than one hundred sites during the Cold War. Cleanup began in 1989, and the Office of Environmental Management has completed cleanup at 91 of 107 nuclear sites, Still, according to the GAO, “but 16 remain, some of which are the most challenging to address.” Those sites include Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, the Hanford site in Washington, and the Nevada National Security Site.

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