Environment and nuclear weapons

The 1970 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is an important mechanism for halting the production of nuclear weapons and their resulting environmental impacts. The NPT, by constraining the continued development of nuclear weapons, can act as a means to prevent further radioactive contamination to the environment.

The production of nuclear weapons has created not only the threat of nuclear destruction on an immediate level through nuclear war, but also on a continual and protracted level through the creation of nuclear waste.  The ‘clean up’ and environmental restoration of the US DOE's nuclear weapons complex (and other nuclear facilities worldwide) is regarded as one of the most costly and difficult projects ever undertaken.  New technologies will need to be developed in order to retrieve radioactive materials which have been released into the environment either through accident or by design. The dumping  of nuclear wastes into bodies of water as well as the burial of radioactive materials is particularly troubling.

In the United States, major water systems including the Columbia River, Savannah River and the Snake River aquifer have been contaminated.  From 1945 until 1970, coolant waters from nuclear reactors at the Hanford Reservation in Washington State were routinely discharged into the Columbia River. In 1991, the General Accounting Office published a document which stated that 444 billion gallons of liquid radioactive wastes, from coolant waters to radioactive liquids, were discharged into the environment from the Hanford site alone.

Hanford is also host to the infamous ‘tank farm’ where millions of gallons of highly radioactive and toxic waste are contained in 177 tanks.  Approximately 50 of these tanks present an immediate threat of explosion due to a gaseous build-up of a variety of chemical constituents and their decay products.  Some tanks have already ruptured and their radioactive contents have leaked into the ground.   

In Russia, the situation is equally distressing. Nuclear submarines, some still armed with nuclear warheads, are rusting away in the fjords of Murmansk. Elsewhere, rivers have been polluted and open reservoirs and lakes have been used to hold large quantities of liquid radioactive materials.  In 1957, a waste storage tank (not unlike those at Hanford) at the Chelyabinsk nuclear weapons site in Russia exploded and a radioactive cloud dispersed over more than 200 square kilometers of an agricultural region containing numerous rivers and lakes.  Nearly all the trees within the most radioactive zone were damaged or killed. Radioactive waste has been routinely dumped into Lake Karachay, recognized as the world's most radioactive body of water, also at Chelyabinsk. The highest reading there, recorded near a discharge pipe, was approximately 6 grays per hour, enough radioactivity to give an adult human being a lethal dose in less than one hour.

The environmental damage resulting from nuclear technology is not limited to the two largest nuclear weapons states.  All nuclear weapons and nuclear energy producing nations have caused some level of environmental contamination, both in their own countries and abroad - such as, nuclear testing in the South Pacific, Nevada, Kazakhstan, China, India and Pakistan; water and airborne discharges from reprocessing plants in the UK and France; and uranium mining in Namibia, Canada, former East Germany and Australia. Moreover, the ongoing production of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power continues to create nuclear waste.  Any long-term approach to ‘clean-up’ must be tied to a halt in the production of nuclear weapons, weapons usable materials and nuclear power.    

The burial of radioactive materials is presently being touted as the ‘solution’ to radioactive waste ‘disposal’.  WIPP in New Mexico, Yucca Mountain in Nevada, Gorleben in Germany, proposed sites in the UK, Russia, Australia and elsewhere are among the places where nuclear engineers claim to have ‘solved’ the nuclear waste problem.  However, at present, there are no known disposal routes for long-lived radioactive materials.  The burial of these materials must not be confused with their safe containment and isolation from the environment.

Facts and Figures

    • In the United States alone, more than $44 billion has been spent on the production of nuclear weapons as of 1996.  ‘Clean up’ is projected to cost more than $300 billion through the year 2070, and even then the contaminated sites will require monitoring and stewardship into the far future.    
    • The production of nuclear weapons has polluted vast amounts of soil and water at hundreds of nuclear weapons facilities all over the world.  Many of the substances released, including plutonium, uranium, strontium, cesium, benzene, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury and cyanide, are carcinogenic and/or mutagenic and remain hazardous for thousands, some for hundreds of thousands, of years.
    • Contaminants from nuclear weapons production and testing have often traveled far down wind and down stream.  Radioactivity released from atmospheric nuclear testing — including plutonium, strontium, cesium, carbon-14, and radioactive iodine — has been widely dispersed throughout the world. Underground tests have contaminated soil and groundwater.  A 1991 US government report called the soil contamination from underground testing at the Nevada Test Site "a threat to human health and the environment".
    • Radioactive wastes created in the manufacture of a single nuclear bomb containing 4 kg of plutonium-239 and 20 kg of uranium-235 include: 2,000 metric tons of uranium mining waste, 4 metric tons of depleted uranium, 12,000 curies of strontium-90, 12,000 curies of cesium-137, 50 cubic meters of ‘low-level’ waste and 7 cubic meters of transuranic waste. For an approximate picture of radioactive waste production to date, multiply the above by the estimated 70,000 nuclear warheads that have been manufactured on an international scale.
    • Decommissioning nuclear weapons and nuclear power facilities will create an entirely new radioactive waste stream.  It is important to realize that what is contaminated also becomes contaminating.  Thus, cleaning up the world's nuclear facilities will produce further, large amounts of radioactive materials which will require continual maintenance and responsible care.   
    • Radioactive materials ought to be stored on-site in monitored, retrievable configurations, and isolated from the environment for manageable time frames, such as 50 year periods. These materials need to be vigilantly guarded and kept in safe containment until, eventually, the responsibility for our nuclear legacy will be passed to future generations.
    • Currently at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, in Carlsbad, New Mexico , plutonium contaminated waste and plutonium residues are being buried in a salt flat formation, more than 2000 feet beneath the surface of the Earth. Although it has been argued that a subterranean salt formation is a safe place to store radioactive waste, it is more accurate to say that WIPP was chosen for political reasons, not geological reasons. The population surrounding the area are predominately Hispanic and Native American, who hold little or no political power in the United States. This type of environmental racism also applies to the High-Level Radioactive Waste dump in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.