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
  • ARMY OF THE DOG
    A new generation of monkey wrenchers hits the Front Range?
  • ANNIE CLARK TANNER FELLOWSHIP IN ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    The Tanner Humanities Center and the Environmental Humanities Program of the University of Utah seek an environmental writer to offer classes in Utahs Environmental Humanities...
  • ALASKA STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society works to protect Wildlands and inspire Americans to care for our public lands. We seek to hire a strategic, experienced leader who...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Idaho Conservation League (ICL) seeks an individual to lead this 45-year-old organization as executive director, to carry on ICLs work as Idahos leading voice...
  • IDAHO RIVERFRONT:
    2+ acres, 400+ feet on Snake River, 2800 sf residence, NWF-certified wildlife habitat, excellent hunting, fishing, birdwatching, stargazing, sunsets & panoramic views. In the heart...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS IS EXPANDING - THREE JOB OPENINGS
    Guardians is expanding and looking for a few great people to join us in protecting and restoring the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health...
  • SUNNYSIDE MARKET SEEKS NEW PROPRIETOR
    Organic grocery/cafe at Glacier Bay needs a vibrant leader. Love good food, community, and Alaska? Join us!
  • NO INDIVIDUAL HEROES: OURAY MOUNTAIN RESCUE TEAM
    Ouray County, Colorado, a popular tourist destination, has dramatic mountains and amazing winter ice climbing. Challenging terrain and high altitude can push visitors to their...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM COORDINATOR - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Coordinator-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM MANAGER - TAHOE AREA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Manager-Tahoe Area. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • CALIFORNIA PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, SOUTHERN CA
    National conservation organization seeks a regular, full-time California Program Associate-Southern CA. Position works closely with California-based program staff and National Forest Foundation staff to provide...
  • THE BOOK OF BARLEY -
    Collector's Item! The story of barley, the field crop. 50 years of non-fiction research. www.barleybook.com
  • TEMPORARY ASSISTANT EDITOR
    Are you a climber and a writer who is passionate about mountain literature? Do you love searching through old alpine journals for stories of esoteric...
  • OWN YOUR OWN CANYON - 1400 SF STRAW-BALE ECO-HOME ON 80 ACRES - 3 HOURS FROM L.A.
    1400 sf of habitable space in a custom-designed eco-home created and completed by a published L.A. architect in 1997-99. Nestled within its own 80-acre mountain...
  • GRASSROOTS LEADERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a full-time grassroots leadership director to oversee all aspects of the Grassroots Leadership Program. This includes ongoing development of...
  • RIVER TRIP LEADER & EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • RIVER GUIDE AND EDUCATOR
    Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a growing nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • POLICY AND RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
    The Center for Western Priorities (CWP) is a nonpartisan communications and policy center that serves as a source of accurate information, promotes responsible policies and...
  • OWN A PIECE OF THE GREATER YELLOWSTONE ECOSYSTEM!
    near Ennis, MT. Artist designed, 1900 SF, 2BR/2BA home on 11.6 acres with creek, tree, views, privacy. 406-570-9233 or [email protected] www.arrowreal.com (Country Homes).