Last week, I was invited by the Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Legacy Management (LM), and The S. M. Stoller Corporation to participate in DOE’s Long-Term Surveillance and Maintenance (LTS&M) Conference in Grand Junction, Colorado. The three days of presentations and discussions were fascinating.
I was impressed with the monumental effort underway to protect the environment and future generations from our nation’s Cold War activities and horrified with the cost of site remediation. I was exposed to concepts such as environmental stewardship, reduction of site “footprints”, “energy farms” on remediated sites, stakeholder and community trust, and responsibility for surveillance and monitoring in perpetuity.
LM is directly responsible for post-closure management of some 86 sites around the United States. The Cold War’s nuclear agenda resulted in the mining and processing of uranium, the development of nuclear reactors, and other sophisticated systems that produced our nuclear arsenal. Some of the sites for mining, milling and the production of nuclear technologies were on Native American lands. Little was actually known in the 40s, 50s and 60s of the health risks to plant workers and surrounding communities and longer-term environmental impacts. The price tag for this effort from the 1940s until the 2050s, when the last site is remediated, may be as much as a trillion dollars. These Legacy sites may require management and monitoring for hundreds to thousands of years.
There are important lessons to be learned about protecting the planet for future generations contained in this history. It is clear that the creation and use of toxic chemicals need to be very carefully controlled and managed because the consequences for human and environmental health can be far more serious than we might imagine at the time. And the costs of abandoning caution and prudence can be astronomical. Let’s hope such lesson will be learned, remembered, and not repeated. Our children and generations to come will thank us for good stewardship and responsibly managing whatever new technologies we create.
Richard Murphy Ph.D.
Director of Science and Education
Ocean Futures Society