The cost of America’s nuclear programs

I have complained before about how opaque costs are one of the biggest problems with the nuclear industry. There are subsidies and guarantees, both implicit and explicit, there are health and cleanup costs associated with radionucleotide releases and site contamination, and there are the opportunity costs associated with directing capital, skill, and research towards nuclear energy rather than other projects. There are also the intimate linkages between civilian nuclear power and the military, which further muddy the picture when it comes to financial, environmental, and health costs.

In her 2009 book, Stephanie Cooke includes some cost estimates of note. She estimates that the United States spent about $5.5 trillion on their nuclear weapons program between 1940 and 1996: about 11% of total federal spending. By contrast, health, education, and transport were each about 3% of spending. She estimates that the Pantex plant, where the United States assembles its bombs, involved a capital investment of nearly $9 billion by the mid-1950s. By comparison, that was greater than the capital investment in General Motors, U.S. Steel, DuPont, Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa, and Goodyear.

Cooke also cites a 2008 Department of Energy estimate that the Yucca Mountain waste dump would cost $96 billion. Now that the plan has been killed by the Obama administration, it is not clear where the wastes will go, or how much it will cost. The Hanford Site, in Washington, which produced plutonium for American weapons is probably the most contaminated site in North America, with unknown eventual cleanup costs (both in lives and dollars). Other sites with serious contamination include the Savannah River site, which produced fissile materials, Rocky Flats, the Nevada Test Site, and the Marshall Islands.

All these costs are matters that need to be considered when making the decision to extend the lives of nuclear power plants, or construct more. While many of the worst abuses were military, there are plenty of costs associated purely with civilian production, and the intimate intertwining of the two areas of practice make it impossible to decisively associate other costs with one or the other activity. Nuclear energy is certainly a power source with a great many serious costs and risks to consider, over and above the basic expenses of building and operating plants and producing fuel for them.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “The cost of America’s nuclear programs”

  1. Given that Canada’s nuclear program is entirely non-military, it should provide a test case to use against the American one.

    Do we have any badly contaminated sites? Also, what do people estimate it will cost to deal with our nuclear wastes?

  2. 1966 Palomares B-52 crash
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The Palomares Incident or 1966 Palomares B-52 crash occurred on January 17, 1966, when a B-52G bomber of the USAF Strategic Air Command collided with a KC-135 tanker during mid-air refuelling at 31,000 feet (9,450 m) over the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Spain.

    Of the four Mk28 type hydrogen bombs the B-52G carried, three were found on land near the small fishing village of Palomares in the municipality of Cuevas del Almanzora, Almería, Spain. The non-nuclear explosives in two of the weapons detonated upon impacting the ground, resulting in the contamination of a 2-square-kilometer (490-acre) (0.78 square mile) area by radioactive plutonium (akin to a dirty bomb explosion). The fourth, which fell into the Mediterranean Sea, was recovered intact after a 2½ month-long search.

    In March 2009, TIME magazine identified the Palomares accident as one of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters”.

  3. 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    The 1968 Thule Air Base B-52 crash, Thule affair or Thule accident (pronounced /ˈtuːliː/) was an accident on January 21, 1968 involving a United States Air Force (USAF) B-52 bomber. The aircraft was carrying four hydrogen bombs on a Cold War “Chrome Dome” alert mission over Baffin Bay when a cabin fire forced the crew to abandon the aircraft before they could carry out an emergency landing.

    Contaminated ice being loaded into steel tanks for shipping to the United States for processing during Project Crested Ice.

  4. Nuclear could benefit from U.S. climate bill
    Tue Jul 7, 2009 6:07pm EDT

    By Timothy Gardner – Analysis

    NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. climate bill, a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s green agenda, could stall in the Senate unless it contains incentives to help the nuclear power industry build the next generation of reactors.

    The House of Representatives narrowly approved its version of the bill late last month and it included little mention of nuclear energy.

    But that looks set to change as a group of moderate Democratic and Republican senators who strongly back nuclear power tries to wrest industry concessions.

    A key question is whether the industry and its allies can convince enough lawmakers that nuclear power, long seen as an environmental headache due to its radioactive waste and potential safety risks, is actually a solution to worsening global warming.

    As many as 20 to 25 of the 60 Senate Democrats are just as concerned about what the recession is doing to manufacturing, and the coal and oil industries, as they are about global warming. Concessions for nuclear could help win them over, said Manik Roy, a vice president for government outreach at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change.

  5. Potential contamination cleanup costs aside, all of the unaccounted for costs for nuclear (R&D, opportunity costs for other tech, etc.) have already been paid, so there is no reason not to pursue it at the moment, IMO… especially civilian uses, as military R&D is going to continue at the taxpayers expense regardless (at least in the US.)

  6. R.K.,

    Good questions. I would like to see information on both.

    Also, while Canada doesn’t have a nuclear weapons program, it may have contributed material to the one in the US.


    I don’t think this is true. People aren’t planning to rebuld old reactor designs. The new ones will involve new R&D costs, both financial and in terms of other missed opportunities. Other costs, such as accident risks, also rise when you build new reactors.

    Also, as a form of power generation, it seems that new nuclear plants are very expensive.

  7. “When President Obama said he wanted to discontinue work to develop a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, one of the entities that filed suit to protect the project was Washington State, where vast amounts of nuclear waste accumulated at the Hanford nuclear reservation, a weapons site. As I reported on Sunday, a new report suggests that Hanford has a lot more plutonium waste that the Energy Department had acknowledged.

    This week, a blue-ribbon commission on nuclear waste established to seek alternatives to Yucca will hold two days of hearings near Hanford. And one of the experts giving testimony will be Gerry Pollet, executive director of Heart of America Northwest, which describes itself as a watchdog group focused on Hanford.

    Mr. Pollet’s prepared testimony argues that Hanford has deeper problems than the possible demise of Yucca Mountain. Even if Yucca had opened as planned 10 years ago, it would not have enough space for all of Hanford’s wastes, he argues. The Energy Department is trying to build a factory at Yucca that will take liquid wastes and mix them with molten glass to produce a solid, as a factory at another bomb plant in South Carolina is already doing. But at the moment, there is no final resting place for these “vitrified” wastes.”

  8. Nuclear waste
    From bombs to $800 handbags
    Trouble stalks America’s biggest clean-up

    UNTIL the Japanese catastrophe of last weekend, the biggest nuclear mess in the Western world could be found at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state, where America’s government once made most of the plutonium for its nuclear weapons. More than two decades after the clean-up began, officials have yet to deal with any of the nasty stuff.

    At the Hanford site, which sprawls across a sagebrush plain in the south-east of the state, none of the 53m gallons (200m litres) of highly toxic waste stored in 177 ageing and leaky underground tanks has been mopped up, even though the last reactor was shut down in 1987. That must wait until 2019, when a unique waste-treatment plant—described as the largest and most expensive nuclear clean-up project ever undertaken—will begin transforming radioactive leftovers that could poison the nearby Columbia river into still-radioactive glass logs more suitable for long-term storage. If all goes well, gunk-to-glass processing (“vitrification”) will continue until at least 2047 and cost about $74 billion, more than the annual budget of America’s Department of Education.

    But all is not well. The Defence Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, which watches how the Department of Energy runs its nuclear-weapons sites, is currently investigating the safety of the waste-treatment process itself. A whistleblower was removed from his senior job last year after warning that the plant could explode once the operation starts. The safety board is looking into the possibility that witnesses at a hearing were pressured by the DOE and its contractors to downplay the risks. The DOE, in response, has sent a peeved letter to the safety board. It insists that the plant will be safe and warns that the safety board has no authority to investigate possible witness tampering.

  9. The fear and danger is beyond comprehension for most people, and in particular the political leaders who must order men in to danger. But interestingly, it is not unfamiliar to former American president Jimmy Carter. Nearly half a century ago, as a young naval officer, he led a 23-man team to dismantle a reactor that, like Fukushima, had partially melted down.
    The reactor in Chalk River, Canada, about 180 kilometres (110 miles) from Ottawa, was used to enrich plutonium for America’s atomic bombs. On December 12th 1952 it exploded, flooding the reactor building’s basement with millions of litres of radioactive water. Lieutenant Carter, a nuclear specialist on the Seawolf submarine programme, and his men were among the few people with the security clearance to enter a reactor. From Schenectady, New York, they rode the train up and got straight to work.
    “The radiation intensity meant that each person could spend only about ninety seconds at the hot core location,” wrote Mr Carter in “Why Not the Best?”, an autobiography published in 1975 when he was campaigning for the presidency.
    The team built an exact replica of the reactor on a nearby tennis court, and had cameras monitor the actual damage in the reactor’s core. “When it was our time to work, a team of three of us practised several times on the mock-up, to be sure we had the correct tools and knew exactly how to use them. Finally, outfitted with white protective clothes, we descended into the reactor and worked frantically for our allotted time,” he wrote. “Each time our men managed to remove a bolt or fitting from the core, the equivalent piece was removed on the mock-up.”


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