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.