Domestic cleanup of legacy defense nuclear waste and contamination from activities during World War II and the Cold War comprises the largest environmental cleanup project in the world, involving 107 total sites across 35 states. To date, cleanup has been completed at 91 of those sites; however, remaining environmental liabilities are estimated to be between $279 billion – $335 billion (in 2018 dollars), with cleanup activities anticipated to last into 2075 or beyond.
by Bevin Buchheister
The National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center), in partnership with five other intergovernmental groups and the U.S. Department of Energy, hosted the 21st annual Intergovernmental Meeting with the U.S. Department of Energy on Nuclear Weapons Waste Cleanup from November 30 – December 1 in New Orleans. At this event, NGA Center also hosted the Fall Meeting of the Federal Facilities Task Force (FFTF), a network of Governor-appointed representatives from 13 states with regulatory authority over the U.S. Department of Energy’s cleanup efforts.
This annual meeting convenes state, local, tribal and federal officials to discuss priorities and strategies for managing and storing defense nuclear waste and for remediation of production sites. It is planned and convened by six intergovernmental groups representing state, local and tribal officials affected by the ongoing cleanup of defense-related nuclear waste alongside the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM). These six groups are:
- Energy Communities Alliance (ECA)
- Environmental Council of States (ECOS)
- National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG)
- National Conference of State Legislatures Nuclear Legislative Working Group (NCSL NLWG)
- National Governors Association Federal Facilities Task Force (NGA FFTF)
- State and Tribal Government Working Group (STGWG)
At this meeting, senior state, local, and tribal officials listened to presentations and interacted with expert speakers and more than 50 federal officials from DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Park Service (NPS) and the Department of Defense (DOD) during sessions on waste disposal, workforce training, environmental justice, protection of historic landscapes, emerging contaminants, and climate change.
To gain a deeper understanding of the federal budgeting and cleanup prioritization — including strategies for state, local, and tribal officials to provide input — attendees participated in a simulation of the DOE-EM budget development process, followed by a discussion of the DOE-EM budget and best practices for interacting with DOE-EM sites.
The meeting opened with a Program Update by William “Ike” White, Senior Advisor for Environmental Management at the U.S. Department of Energy. He highlighted recent accomplishments and progress such as a Justice40 pilot project at Los Alamos, completing the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at Idaho, and various initiatives for groundwater remediation. Mr. White also discussed upcoming challenges and approaches to meeting these challenges such as building a high-quality, diverse workforce, strengthening existing relationships, and rethinking the approach to dealing with high-level tank waste.
The discussion on Waste Disposal and the Future of Waste Management focused on the challenging work that lies ahead, including the need for additional onsite disposal cells, addressing new low-level waste inventories, identifying disposition paths for orphan waste streams, and developing alternatives to address legacy defense high-level waste in the absence of a repository program. Water quality was mentioned as a vital issue for future waste and legacy site management. DOE-EM staff, alongside state, local, and tribal community representatives, discussed the need for a clear path for disposal to avoid stockpiling waste, which leads to other issues over time. On-site disposal was mentioned as part of the solution for growing stockpiles. It was noted all stakeholders should be involved in navigating the future of waste management, and there was universal agreement that communication is vital for successful engagement.
DOE’s office of Nuclear Energy (DOE-NE) discussed their efforts to identify interim storage of commercial Spent Nuclear Fuel through their Consent-based Siting Process that was recommended by the 2012 Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. Natalia Saraeva, the team lead for consent-based siting at DOE-NE, discussed how the new approach incorporates lessons learned from past siting processes. It emphasizes environmental justice and recognizes that states and communities require resources to meaningfully engage in the process. States are closely watching this effort since it may inform future efforts to identify a permanent repository for defense-related high-level waste.
The session on Climate Resiliency Planning highlighted new DOE programs to address climate and resiliency issues that may have long-term impacts on the environment and ongoing operations in energy communities. The Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations (OCED) is investing over $25 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to support clean energy demonstration projects to help the country achieve net zero emissions by 2050. OCED Director of project management, Todd Schrader, formerly with DOE-EM, discussed how clean energy projects may impact or benefit from DOE-EM cleanup sites, and how the projects will accelerate deployment, market adoption, and an equitable transition to a decarbonized energy system. He noted that support from states and communities is important to a successful application.
Meeting participants learned from experts about the DOE PFAS Program, and how DOE is collaborating closely with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Defense. Emerging Contaminants like Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of human-made chemicals that are linked to cancer and other ill-health effects. They are found in consumer products, manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military installations and are also being found at nuclear weapons waste cleanup sites. The speakers noted that DOE does not have funding in their budget to address PFAS, but they are sampling for PFAS as part of existing environmental monitoring programs. DOE-EM recognized that dedicated funding is needed but noted that if they find a major issue in a drinking water source, the agency will take immediate action. DOE-EM is working with the Hanford site to identify some of the PFAS data gaps, including what the contaminant load looks like. DOE-EM is also working with the FDA on sampling for bioaccumulation in fish and will be developing an implementation plan over the next several months.
Cleanup of the nuclear weapons complex requires technically skilled and well-trained workers. Faced with an aging workforce and looming retirements, DOE-EM leadership, states, tribes and local communities are working to ensure that a new generation is ready to carry forward the cleanup mission. The session on Planning for the Future Workforce pointed out that multiple strategies are required to fill the workforce gap, such as apprenticeship programs, job fairs and outreach to military service members and Historically Black Universities and Colleges. No single approach works better than another.
Over lunch, Nicole Nelson-Jean, Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Field Operations at DOE-EM, discussed DOE-EM’s increased commitment to Environmental Justice. She discussed theJustice40 Initiative pilot program at DOE-EM Los Alamos and the Minority Serving Institutions Partnership Program, MSIPP. The MSIPP partners DOE-EM with Minority Serving Institutions to develop highly qualified science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students into a well-trained, technically skilled and diverse workforce. In 2022, funding for the MSIPP increased from $6 million to $56 million to support (among other things):
- 25 Competitive research awards
- Up to 50 interns during 10-week summer internships
- Up to 40 interns in the Savannah River Environmental Sciences Field Station
- Up to 40 yearlong graduate fellowships
- Up to 18 postdoctoral researchers
Since time immemorial, Native American tribes have had cultural connections to the land where DOE sites are located. States and local communities also have historical ties to activities like the Manhattan Project. The session on Protection of Cultural and Historical Landscapes examined the significance of cultural landscapes and considerations for cleanup decision-making. Federal agencies are responsible for identifying and managing historic landscapes and mitigating the effects of their projects on them. Speakers noted that protection of culturally significant landscapes and resources is an essential part of successfully completing DOE’s cleanup mission. This session also shared how, states, tribes, communities and DOE are working collaboratively to create a new future while honoring past and living histories
The process of developing the $7 billion -$8 billon dollar annual budget for DOE-EM has been a source of frustration for the FFTF and other intergovernmental groups. To improve understanding of the complexities associated with developing the annual budget for the Office of Environmental Management, DOE-EM Director of Budget and Planning Steve Trischman and his team developed a very realistic 90-minute Budget Simulation Exercise. The simulation illustrated how the EM Program budget progresses — from individual field site submittals to an enacted budget. It included a basic budget overview and a three-part exercise that involved secretarial, OMB and congressional guidance that participants had to follow before developing a final budget that met established requirements. The exercise created quite a buzz at the meeting, fostered greater understanding for state participants and will hopefully lead to greater collaboration with DOE-EM on the budget development process.
Looking forward, NGA will continue to convene Governor-designated FFTF members from the 13 states directly affected by cleanup to elevate the states’ voice, share best practices, and foster a thorough, efficient, equitable, and effective cleanup of legacy defense nuclear waste. For more information about the FFTF and these cleanup efforts, see NGA’s publication Cleaning Up America’s Nuclear Weapons Complex or contact NGA’s Dan Lauf (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Bevin Buchheister (email@example.com).