Though firm estimates are still hard to come by, the cleanup costs for the ongoing Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan will be monumental. Some say it will cost as much as $150 billion, and take decades; in contrast, cleanup of the comparatively tame Three Mile Island accident took from 1979 until 1993, and cost about $1 billion.
Interestingly, though, the United States still spends an enormous chunk of money every year on a certain brand of nuclear cleanup. Last week, Josh Wolfe at Forbes wrote that almost 25 percent of all Department of Energy dollars are spent on nuclear remediation and cleanup efforts. This seemed so shocking that I started checking out the DOE budget.
In 2010, the total DOE appropriation was $26.4 billion. Of that, there are two main areas that involve cleanup of nuclear material and contamination, known as “defense environmental cleanup” and “non-defense environmental cleanup.” A total of $5.6 billion went to the former, and about another $255 million went to the latter in 2010. This comes out closer to 22 percent of the DOE’s total budget rather than 25, but the interesting and largely ignored point is still valid: a giant portion of the country’s energy-related government spending goes toward cleaning up nuclear contamination.
An important point, though, is that the bulk of these expenditures aren’t particularly relevant in comparing to the Fukushima cleanup that will be required. The much smaller appropriation for non-defense cleanup is at least somewhat related, in that it "supports activities that address the environmental legacy resulting from civilian nuclear energy research. The nuclear energy research and development carried out by the Department and its predecessor agencies generated waste and contamination that pose unique problems, including large quantities of contaminated soil and groundwater and a number of contaminated structures."
In contrast, the $5.6 billion for defense cleanup is for Cold War—and earlier—weapons development sites. One area alone, the Hanford site in Washington state, accounted for almost $1 billion in remediation activities in 2010. It was in this area that plutonium was generated in 1945 for use in early test explosions, as well as the Nagasaki bomb. Our own Erico Guizzo profiled this problematic “Atomic Age landmark” several years ago.
The long-lasting nature of this type of cleanup activity is probably the most important lesson to bring from the U.S. to Japan as Fukushima remediation begins. Cleanup at the Hanford site, for example, may take until 2035. And the fact that close to a quarter of DOE spending goes toward nuclear cleanup may not drastically change a civilian nuclear power cost-benefit analysis (because it is weapons-focused), but the impact is undeniable nonetheless: that’s almost $6 billion we could be spending on something else.
(Image via Tobin Fricke)