A tour of the West’s radioactive legacy

Trump’s push for nuclear security could send ripples across the region.


President Donald Trump may be putting the atomic West back on the map. Not only has Trump said that he would not rule out using nuclear weapons, but his proposed budget increases funding for nuclear weapons, even as it makes cuts to the Department of Energy overall. 

Specifically, the White House budget would cut $1.6 billion from the Department of Energy, while increasing funding for the National Nuclear Security Administration to almost $14 billion—about the same as the rest of the Energy Department combined. More than $10 billion of that would go toward weapons activities.

A worker at suppresses dust during demolition of a historic Los Alamos site.

The phrase “atomic West” conjures images of the past: the mostly long-defunct uranium mines of the Colorado Plateau; Los Alamos, New Mexico, the clandestine center of the Manhattan Project; Hanford, Washington, which produced two-thirds of the country’s plutonium during World War II and the Cold War. But when you’re dealing with elements, like uranium, that take billions of years to decay, the past is never really past. And as the White House’s proposed budget makes clear, nuclear security is among the Trump administration’s key concerns for the present and future. As we consider the implications of Trump’s apparent stance on nuclear materials, a quick tour of the West’s radioactive legacy is in order.

In the early days of the atomic era, Los Alamos, New Mexico, swiftly transformed from a ranch school in the Jemez Mountains into a top-secret town teeming with young scientists. This former Manhattan Project location is now a major laboratory, with a mission that still includes nuclear security, along with energy and “environmental management”— the cleanup of nuclear weapons and energy sites. The White House budget proposes $6.5 billion for the Energy Department’s environmental management costs, an increase of $290 million. Of that, Los Alamos would receive $192 million.

Technicians receive training in radiological contamination safety at the Hanford nuclear site in 2009.

Though funding for environmental management has increased overall, Hanford, where cleanup of radioactive waste has been underway for two decades, would see a cut. That’s a concern in a place where, in recent months, a tunnel containing radioactive waste partially collapsed, and where a possible leak was found in a storage tank, after which radioactive contamination was detected on a worker’s clothing. Two offices manage different aspects of the Hanford cleanup. Office of River Protection funds would remain about steady, at $1.5 billion, allowing the cleanup of underground toxic waste storage tanks to continue at pace. Trump’s proposed cuts, however, would impact the Richland Operations Office, which oversees various contaminated facilities around the site, and would receive $800 million.

Other Western sites receiving environmental management funding include contaminated facilities at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California ($225 million), and the uranium tailings pile just a few miles from Arches National Park in Moab, Utah ($35 million).

Excavators remove debris from a former uranium mill site in Moab, Utah.

The budget also allocates $323 million for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico, the country’s only permanent storage facility for radioactive waste. Only defense-generated waste is stored at WIPP. Other waste is currently stored in temporary locations around the country. In an effort to remedy that, the Trump administration is looking to Yucca Mountain, the Nevada site selected for nuclear waste storage back in the 1980s. The controversial project, which has been fiercely opposed by Nevada since its inception, was declared dead after former President Barack Obama defunded it in 2012. Trump’s proposed budget includes $120 million to restart licensing for the repository and for interim storage. 

The president’s prioritization of nuclear security raises questions beyond these sites. Will uranium mining and milling on the Colorado Plateau increase? What will happen to the White Mesa mill in southern Utah—near Bears Ears National Monument—the only conventional uranium mill operating in the United States? Will Obama’s moratorium on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon be overturned? 

The American attitude toward nuclear weapons and energy manifests uniquely in the West, and the effects of the Trump administration’s enthusiasm for both nuclear security and energy independence will reverberate across the region. We just don’t know how much.

Rebecca Worby is an editorial intern at High Country News.   

High Country News Classifieds