The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun
Paducah, Kentucky
Monday, February 18, 2002

Cleaning up nuclear waste will close book on Cold War

By Spencer Abraham
U.S. Secretary of Energy


The history books will tell that the Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union a decade ago. But for many Americans who live near the sites and weapons labs that produced and processed the nuclear materials we used to defeat the Soviets, the struggle isn't entirely over.

That's because one consequence of the critical work done at these sites over a half century is leftover nuclear waste. That waste didn't just disappear with the Soviet Union.

This nation's post-Cold War mission should have been obvious. Clean up those contaminated sites, and close the ones we no longer needed. And do it as safely, as quickly, and as efficiently as possible. This nation owed that much to the understanding neighbors whose sacrifices helped safeguard America's freedoms.

But somewhere along the way over the last decade, this cleanup program came off its rails. Though many good people with good intentions worked on the program, the job wasn't getting done. In fact, when I became energy secretary a little more than a year ago, I was presented with the old plan for cleaning up these sites, which called for a timetable of some 70 years to complete and at a cost of $300 billion.

My immediate reaction was that it was not good enough, not for the residents living near those sites, not for the taxpayers, and not for the Department of Energy.

A timeline of 70 years means decades treading water on environmental hazards that need to be eliminated, not just managed. It's not fair to tell people who live near these sites that if everything works right, then perhaps their grandchildren will live in communities that are free of risk.

I commissioned a top-to-bottom review of the environmental management mission. Our objective was to develop a new plan to swiftly clean up serious problems at sites and also reduce the risks to humans as well as the environment.

On Feb. 8, I announced this new plan of action. Called "Securing Our Communities: A Blueprint for Addressing Risks and Accelerating the Environmental Restoration of the Nation's Nuclear Sites," it emphasizes three basic goals: one, eliminating significant health and safety risks as soon as possible; two, reviewing remaining risks on a case-by-case basis working with state and local officials to determine the most appropriate remediation schedules and approaches; and three, streamlining cleanup so that funding spent on routine maintenance and security which the program estimates accounts for two-thirds of the total EM budget will be put to use for further expedited cleanup.

Further, this plan fully incorporates the department's Homeland Security Strategy, which is to significantly accelerate the consolidation of nuclear material and waste into more secure locations and configurations.

The Energy Department's new budget helps put this plan in motion. It includes an extra $800 million for an expedited cleanup account, providing funds to those sites that agree to work with us to meet these goals.

This new plan will stress accountability. Meaningful and attainable deadlines will be set, and cleanup will be closely monitored to ensure that those deadlines are met. I will hold my managers federal and contractors' employees alike responsible for meeting our goals. Plus we will strive to build trust with local officials and community leaders who have grown frustrated with the pace of the old strategy.

For skeptics who say this approach can't work, I point to our Rocky Flats, Colo., site, which we have used as a testing ground for our ideas while formulating our plan. When we began, the schedule for Rocky Flats said it would take 65 years to complete, and at a cost of $36 billion. But through innovative reforms similar to our new plan, Rocky Flats will now be cleaned up and closed 55 years ahead of schedule in 2006. And as a bonus, it will save nearly $30 billion.

We've instituted similar reforms at our Fernald, Ohio, site. Rocky Flats and Fernald are the kind of success stories that convince me our larger goals are attainable, in far less than 70 years and at far less cost than $300 billion. Nothing could make me happier as secretary of energy than for us to write this final chapter and close the book on the Cold War once and for all.