Michael KreponThe Cost of Convenience

Having the good fortune to live along a beautiful country road that weaves between woods and cow pastures, I can assert with authority that natural beauty is no deterrent to throwing litter along the roadside. By my count, the most littered beer can, by far, is Bud Lite. Marlboro, followed by Camel, is the most littered cigarette pack. Drivers ingest unhealthy crap purchased at convenience stores a couple of miles away. Some find it more convenient to throw stuff out the car window than to put it in trash cans or recycle bins. Litter has a perverse, persistent logic: Trash your body, then trash the environment.

When convenience is reinforced by presumed national security imperatives, environmental problems are magnified exponentially. Countries don’t go to the expense of investing in the infrastructure to build nuclear weapons unless they have serious security concerns. Serious security concerns invite short-cuts that result in big messes that are very costly to clean up. Or not clean up. Environmental hazards were an afterthought during the first nuclear age; ditto for the second.

Cost estimates of nuclear weapon-related programs still focus on the measurable – production costs, plus projected overruns – while sidestepping clean-up costs, which are hard to figure, plus inevitable overruns, which have never been estimated properly. For example, two recent studies trying to cost out the modernization and maintenance of US nuclear forces and warheads – a Congressional Budget Office estimate of $355 billion by 2023, and a James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies estimate of $1 trillion over the next 30 years – either do not include clean-up costs or barely address them.

Then there’s the dismantlement, retirement, and health care costs associated with nuclear weapons. Air Force spokespersons have taken to comparing (favorably) their budget for strategic modernization programs to that of the US Postal Service, while neglecting to mention that the Congress now forces the Post Office to factor in pension costs when presenting its budget figures. Using this methodology, the Post Office’s revenues can’t meet expenses. What would US strategic modernization and nuclear laboratory costs be if these estimates included retiree and health care benefits?

A good friend of mine, Len Ackland, has written a fine book about the shortcuts and environmental degradation at Rocky Flats, near Denver. Every nation possessing nuclear weapons has similar messes and environmental time bombs. Which of these will wind up being most costly? Readers are invited to suggest nominations. Of all the environmental hazards the United States incurred when building the Bomb, the biggest sense of dread I feel relates to the magnificent Columbia River in Washington State. How much did Hanford really cost? Wait and see.


  1. Bradley Laing (History)


    Russia has warned that Moscow may consider quitting the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as the United States has deployed a ballistic missile destroyer to Spain.

    Mikhail Ulyanov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s top disarmament official, said Sunday that if the US continues to enhance its anti-missile capabilities through NATO’s missile defense shield in Europe, then Moscow may be forced to quit the START nuclear treaty.

  2. Bradley Laing (History)


    —Offical website of the ballistic missile destroyer mentioned in the article above.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)
  4. Cthippo (History)

    Hanford hands down.

    Plutonium is nasty, but at least it’s just plutonium, and mostly solid. The high level liquid reprocessing waste at Hanford is going to be the nightmare that keeps on giving pretty much indefinitely.

    Let’s remember just what that waste is. To make plutonium you put uranium in a reactor and run it for a while (usually about 60 days I think). The Uranium breaks down into smaller daughter particles, and some of it absorbs neutrons and becomes plutonium. Some of the plutonium keeps absorbing neutrons and becomes other things, larger, heavier elements that then split into different daughter particles. Once it’s done “cooking” in the reactor, they let it cool for about a month to allow the shorter lived daughter particles to decay, chop it up into little pieces, and dissolve the pieces of fuel rod in nitric acid, which is about the most corrosive stuff on earth. A little clever chemistry involving tributyl phosphate removed the plutonium, but what’s left is a whole soup of toxic, intensely radioactive particles, some of which don’t exist naturally on earth, dissolved in an extremely corrosive solution. It’s also self heating from the radioactive decay, and produces explosive hydrogen gas.

    Got that picture in your mind?

    Now multiply it by millions of gallons and you’ve got Hanford.

  5. j_kies (History)

    I was under the impression that the sediment under the bottom of the Columbia River has some large number(millions?) of Curies of fission products and neutron activated species due to the cooling water being run from the Snake river through the reactors and back out to the river for the early work. While this represents a huge environmental risk, if the material is captured in the sediment it may not reinsert into the biological cycle. Clearly that wartime ’emergency’ was not well thought out but dumb luck may have mitigated the lack of foresight.

  6. John Schilling (History)

    It would be interesting to know whether the British, French, and Chinese programs have had these sorts of difficulties. I advance as a hypothesis that the United States, and probably Russia, initially ran into problems
    when trying to build vast nuclear arsenals in extreme haste, and have since aggravated the issue by trying to maintain cold-war sized nuclear infrastructure on post-cold-war budgets. So, what happens if you keep things small and constant and aren’t in such a rush?

    • Cthippo (History)

      The Soviets certainly did. Look up the Kyshtym disaster in which a high level waste tank similar to one of the ones at Hanford exploded and deposited it’s contents over thousands of square miles.

      As for the other nuclear weapons states, it’s hard to say. The British certainly had problems at Windscale, and dealt with at least some of their waste by dumping it in the Irish Sea. Any reprocessing operation is going to generate high level waste which no one has come up with a good way to dispose of, the more recent additions to the nuclear club have doubtless learned from some of the mistakes made by the pioneers.

      Scale is also important. An arsenal of a few hundred weapons is going to produce far less waste than one containing thousands or tens of thousands of weapons.

    • rwendland (History)

      The UK certainly has similar problems, mostly at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site, which has a decommisioning cost estimate of £67.5 billion (currently, the estimate tends to rise every few years). Although now a civilian site, much the expense dates back to rather careless military plutonium production activities of the 50s/60s. Roughly £5 billion more for purely military decommissioning.

      A flavour of the problems is given by this Nuclear Engineering International article:


      “The challenge posed was how to remotely collect samples of radioactive sludge up to 100cm deep from the bottom of the First Generation Magnox Storage Pond (FGMSP) at Sellafield, without disturbing the thick sludge bed or destroying the sample’s characteristics.

      The pond holds some 14,000 cubic meters of contaminated water containing Magnox spent nuclear fuel, an estimated 1200 cubic meters of radioactive sludges, as well as miscellaneous nuclear wastes and skips. The sludge is made up of algae, corrosion products and wind-blown material that have accumulated in the open-air pond since it was built in the 1950s.

      … The greater our understanding of the sludge, the more opportunities we will have to accelerate decommissioning of this priority project.”

    • P (History)

      Here in France, as far as I know, they have only been a few of such issues with the military nuclear program, the worst of which were the contamination in Algeria (one test, Béryl, went particularly wrong) and in Mururoa/Fangataufa (the ground-level tests were no good ideas).

      Besides this, there’s :

      – At Tricastin (if I remember correctly), after a minor civilian nuclear incident, the experts checked the water table, and, instead of finding the uranium contamination they feared, they found traces of plutonium. This was traced to the former military program of the 60’s, which proved that at least one leak went undeclared at the time. Undoubtedly a very bad thing. However, for what I know, the contamination was small enough that no restriction on the use of the water has been needed.

      – At La Hague, there’s also a nuclear waste repository (short-lived waste only, closed for additions since 1994). It’s known, and even officially documented, that the amount and kind of waste stored in the initial exploitation period of the repository has not been well measured, and that, as such, thery are uncertainties regarding the amount of radioactive material stored here – some of which came from the military program. OTOH, that’s nothing compared to Hanford : the repository is controlled, the waste isn’t leaking, and it is supposed to remain here at least for the next centuries.

      – At the same place, before 1986, there was no regulation limiting the amount of non short-lived waste associated with the short-lived one. Thus there’s an important amount of plutonium in a repository that’s not supposed to last for the tens of thousand of years its isotopes require. Annoying, for sure, but hardly a life-or-death matter. And anyways, most of it comes from the civilian program, so it’s not fully comparable.

      Generally speaking, the fact they have been so few issues isn’t surprising : the program was small, and exceptionnaly slow (the first nuclear bomb program was initiated in 1939, the second slowly started after WWII, for a first explosion in 1960!). And then, there’s the issue of experience and technological progress : 1960’s technology was more advanced than 1940’s, and the risk of getting a Windscale-like surprise is far lowered once there has already been a documented Windscale-like accident somewhere else in the world (like, say, at Windscale).

      Finally, to answer Michael Krepon, I would like to point out two things. First, the actual cost of a contamination depends not only upon the amount and kind of waste rejected, but also upon the level of clean-up the host country is willing to perform, or, conversely, to the level of contamination the country is willing to accomodate.

      Second, the cost of the remaining contamination, in terms of GDP loss, will be dependant upon the level of GDP the affected population would have reached without it – and, so far, it’s been quite clear that the US GDP per capita has been consistently far higher that the Russian or Chinese ones.

      Thus, although I believe the Russian program was environmentally far worse than whatever will come out of Hanford, I have no choice but to nominate it as, in all likeliness, the costliest military nuclear mess that currently exists. And I hope it will keep the title.

    • Cthippo (History)

      I would guess that the later members of the nuclear club indeed learned from the mistakes of the earlier members. If you look at the number of accidents over time in both the US and USSR they peaked in the 1950s, despite the fact that the bulk of weapons production happened later. There was a lot of new science being discovered, and some of it came the hard way.

      One of those lessons was the move from the early Bismuth Phosphate process to the REDOX process and eventually to the modern PUREX chemistry. By the time other nations started their programs PUREX was well understood to be the way to go and so they avoided some of the contamination problems that the early nuclear weapons states dealt with.

      We should also separate out the consequences of accidents from those of normal production operations. Most of the contamination problems in the US are the result of normal production, while In the UK and USSR you also have extensive contamination from accidents. Both are consequences of nuclear weapons production, but I think they should be considered at least somewhat separately.

    • Magpie (History)

      Taiwan’s Orchid Island is a good example of what happens when you have that oh-so-common problem of “having exactly enough money to do a half-assed job”. It was meant to be a temporary store, but it’s been there 30 years now. It’s not a terrible facility and it’s well monitored, but not built to last – sea spray often rains down on the sheds. Its height above sea level (12m or so) *was* thought to be tsunami proof, but then 2011’s tsunami in Japan showed us how inadequate 12m really is. It’s also got bugger-all security (compared with most other sites).

      All those years ago the locals had signed up for what they thought was a fish canning factory, and are not happy…

      22° 0′ 17″ N, 121° 35′ 40″ E

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    The deadline for nuclear reductions under New START is Feb. 5, 2018.

    With just four years left to meet the reduction in strategic nuclear weapons and launchers, no plan has been released, though staff for Montana’s congressional delegation said they expect such a plan this summer.

    The omnibus spending bill that Congress passed in mid-January prohibits the Department of Defense from using any funds to conduct an environmental study related to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Congressional staffers said the measure prevents the DOD from considering eliminating an entire ICBM squadron. The measure was supported by Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus, as well as Rep. Steve Daines, though he voted against the omnibus bill.


  8. Bradley Laing (History)


    Combat aircraft in Baranavichy may carry nuclear weapons.

    This statement was made by leader of the United Civil Party (UCP) Anatol Liabedzka.

    “A number of steps were made in connection with the deployment of Russian troops in Belarus: an appeal to the Constitutional Court; we tried to carry out pickets across Belarus; we appealed to the defence minister to figure out the status of the group of Russian fighter jets in Baranavichy,” he told ucpb.org.

    “We were informed that our request was resent to the commander of the Air Forces and the Air Defence Troops of Belarus. We have received an answer.

    Firstly, it follows from the letter that citizens of Belarus cannot influence the decisions of top officials relating to defence issues. There are no mechanisms of influence.

    Secondly, we are informed that the use of nuclear weapons is not supposed in joint combat alert missions. But it means it is not supposed today, but the possibility of its use cannot be ruled out in principle. There’s no ban. The aircraft are technically capable to carry nuclear weapons if necessary.

    We tried to figure out the issues of financing. The only thing we were told is that it is funded by Russia. But we don’t know how much it costs and what obligations the Belarusian side has,”

    he said.

    We remind that Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu said on April 23 during a visit to Minsk that Russia planned to deploy an air force regiment in Belarus by 2015. He said there were plans to set up an air force command post and deliver the first group of fighter jets in 2013.

    The Russian Air Force commander, Viktor Bondarev, said on June 26 that the Russian air base for modified Su-27SM3 jets would be located in Lida, Hrodna region, and would begin to operate in 2013.

  9. Stephen Schwartz (History)

    “Cost estimates of nuclear weapon-related programs still focus on the measurable – production costs, plus projected overruns – while sidestepping clean-up costs, which are hard to figure, plus inevitable overruns, which have never been estimated properly.”

    One study that didn’t sidestep this issue is the first (and so far only) effort to quantify the comprehensive cumulative costs of the US nuclear weapons program, Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institution Press, 1998). We not only tallied up the costs of the warheads and bombs and the myriad of delivery systems, we offered a whole chapter on historical and projected clean-up costs, including a conservative estimate of what future US costs would be (roughly equivalent to the expense of manufacturing all the bombs and warheads in the first place). We also included chapters on the quantifiable costs associated with what we called victims of the bomb (including nuclear weapon complex workers, military personnel, and citizens living downwind of test sites and production facilities), and the (relatively smaller) costs of dismantling nuclear weapons.

    My co-authors and I continue to support other researchers who seek to build on and refine our findings. And we look forward to the day when the US government—and the governments of the other nuclear weapon states prepare and publish accurate and complete budgets so that officials and regular citizens alike can make informed decisions about nuclear weapons and weapons-related programs.

    • Magpie (History)

      In a more “meta” theme: I’ve never quite understood how environmentalism became a “leftist” thing. What many of us object to is the socialisation of the true cost of production – and that true cost should correctly include the costs of clean-up and/or environmental damage. Environmentalism in general is often built around cost-benefit analysis, and argues that the problem would largely sort itself out if the true costs of production were properly borne by the producers themselves.

      Nations are NOT merely markets. They are ALSO in the business of selling raw materials and land and labour (in effect). It is in their long term economic interests, surely, to price those resources in such a way as to at least break even. Why are governments permitting businesses to buy those resources at less than the cost that the government will incur in longer term damage and clean-up?

      A great many human activities, if properly priced, would be found to be economically uncompetitive – reflecting the simple truth that these activities may be unviable in the long term, at least without modification or mitigation. And a great many “environmentalist” policies and businesses (not all, by a long way, but a lot) would be found to be genuinely viable if permitted to compete on an even footing.

      This socialisation of industrial costs represents a massive distortion in the free market – but because people have somehow gotten the idea that it’s a “leftist” ideology, and because humans naturally dismiss the arguments of the “other side”, people oppose environmentalism in the false belief that it is anti-business. Quite the contrary: it provides a more level playing field for a range of businesses that are poorly represented only because their competitors socialise a significant proportion of their costs.

  10. Bradley Laing (History)


    Myanmar has arrested a group of journalists connected to a recent report about an alleged chemical-arms production plant in the Southeast Asian nation.

    Over the weekend, the Myanmar Police Force’s Special Branch took into custody four journalists and the head of the small journal Unity, the Straits Times reported on Tuesday. The media personnel have been accused of revealing state secrets.

    The Unity report about the alleged chemical plant, located in Myanmar’s central Magwe region, contained photographs and detailed a “secret chemical weapon factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township,” according to a summary by Irrawaddy magazine.

    The so-called “24” facility reportedly was established in 2009 as part of a number of facilities connected by about 1,000 feet of tunnels. Unity reported that area residents had spotted Chinese workers at the plant.

  11. Bradley Laing (History)

    NNSA News:
    WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has announced that Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories successfully completed the first full-system mechanical environment test of the B61‑12 as part of the NNSA’s ongoing effort to refurbish the B61 nuclear bomb.

    Dr. Donald L. Cook
    This first full-system mechanical environment test is one of several critical milestones for the B61-12 Life Extension Program (LEP.) The B61-12 LEP is an essential element of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent and of the U.S.’s commitments to extended deterrence.


  12. Bradley Laing (History)

    Japan to abandon troubled fast breeder reactor
    (AFP) – 18 hours ago
    Tokyo — Japan will scrap plans to generate electricity at its multi-billion dollar experimental Monju fast breeder reactor, a media report said on Friday, in a move that could affect the nation’s nuclear fuel cycle programme.
    Monju was designed to generate more fuel than it consumes via nuclear chain reaction, and was intended to be at the core of a programme that would reuse spent fissile materials in a country that has few natural resources of its own.


  13. Bradley Laing (History)

    Rob Edwards
    theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 February 2014 08.00 EST

    Britain’s secretive nuclear weapons research organisation gives over £8m a year in research funding to more than 50 universities, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act.

    The Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE), a private consortium that runs nuclear plants at Aldermaston and Burghfield in Berkshire for the Ministry of Defence (MoD), puts most of the money into five of the UK’s leading universities with which it has formed “strategic alliances.


  14. Bradley Laing (History)

    Tokyo suggested that it would allow the US to bring nuclear weapons into Japanese territory in the event of a serious threat to its security.

    In a briefing with lawmakers, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida outlined conditions that would lead Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to make exceptions to Japan’s longstanding posture against possessing, producing, or allowing nuclear weapons within the nation’s borders, Kyodo News reported…

    Abe said last month it was a “mistake” that previous administrations led by his Liberal Democratic Party avoided acknowledging secret US-Japan pacts that had been declassified in the United States.