By JOHN R. EMSHWILLER And GARY FIELDS
LIVERMORE, Calif.—About 45 miles southeast of San Francisco, in an 800-acre mini-city built to create atomic bombs, there’s a contaminated building slated for eventual demolition.
Mark Costella, a facilities manager at the Energy Department’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, would prefer to tear down the structure, but doesn’t have the tens of millions of dollars needed. Instead, he’s spending $500,000 to fix the roof.
These are the kinds of contradictions at the heart of the complicated, expensive and struggling effort to clean up America’s 70-year-old nuclear-weapons program.
The Energy Department’s cleanup operation is wrestling with reduced budgets, tens of billions of dollars in ballooning cost estimates and 2,700 structures on its to-do list. Officials said more than 350 additional unneeded facilities controlled by other programs in the Energy Department are likely eligible for transfer to the cleanup operation. But that office said its funds are limited and it isn’t accepting any more projects for now, no matter their significance.
Congress and government watchdogs have started raising alarms about the stockpile of contaminated buildings, warning that some of the facilities pose a health risk to the public and that the cost of dealing with them will only increase the longer they remain standing. Provisions directing the administration to address the issue were included in Congress’s 2016 defense bill, vetoed by President Barack Obama earlier this month.
The cleanup work, which includes a mixture of radioactive and chemical wastes, “is the largest environmental remediation ever undertaken by mankind and the most technically challenging,” said Gregory Friedman, who earlier this month retired as the Energy Department’s Inspector General, in an interview.
One reason for the Energy Department’s struggles is a budgetary tug of war within the agency. One part of the department maintains the U.S.’s atomic arsenal, and another is in charge of cleaning up the contamination from nuclear work. Funds for both come from the same pot, and in a shift from the 1990s, an increasing portion is going toward ensuring the readiness of the weapons arsenal, an Obama administration priority.
The nuclear-weapons budget grew 5% to $8.2 billion in the latest fiscal year—up 23% in the past decade—while the budget for cleanup was essentially flat at $5.9 billion—and down 19% since 2005.