Closing DOE Creates More Problems than it Solves

Donald F. Kettl
Donald Kettl
Donald F. Kettl Donald F. Kettl is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution as well as Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy

September 3, 1996

As Bob Dole campaigned for his 15 percent tax cut not long ago, wild fires threatened the Department of Energy’s nuclear reservation in Hanford, Washington. Nothing could better illustrate just how hard it will be to make the tough decisions to finance the tax cut without ballooning the federal deficit.

Dole says that part of his tax cut would be financed through much faster economic growth. Much of the tax cut, though, would be funded through cuts in federal spending including eliminating the Department of Energy that would dwarf anything envisioned, let alone passed, to date.

That brings us to the case of the burping tanks. For 50 years, the Hanford facility produced the plutonium that sparked the nation’s nuclear weapons. In the rush to produce bombs, however, the federal government made only short-term plans for treating the toxic, corrosive, and radioactive residue. Much liquid waste, for example, was simply pumped into underground storage tanks, with the assumption that engineers would later figure out what to do with it.

The hoped-for fixes never emerged and chemical reactions inside the tanks have transformed the substances into a nasty sludge. These reactions sometimes produced highly explosive hydrogen gas that threatened to “burp” explosively out of the tanks, threatening the surrounding land with toxic and radioactive contamination. Some of the highly corrosive chemicals have eaten through the tank walls. The leaking tanks are leeching the dangerous chemicals into the ground and threatening the nearby Columbia River, which provides rich fisheries and water for residents downstream.

Simply leaving the Hanford sludge alone is not an option. Nor is Hanford unique. Similarly serious environmental problems have spread throughout the nation’s nuclear weapons complex, at places like Rocky Flats, Colorado, and Savannah River, South Carolina.

Just stabilizing the sites, without attempting to prepare the land for any useful future purpose, would cost $230 billion over the next 75 years, a Department of Energy study has estimated a significant increase in money and effort over department’s current cleanup program. Meanwhile, Congress has committed the department to finding long-term storage for the nation’s nuclear waste, including the highly radioactive residue of forty years of commercial nuclear power production. This process that will take many billions more.

Financing $32 billion of the tax cut, Dole says, would come from closing the department. That would amount to a one-third cut in the department’s spending. More than 70 percent of the department’s budget, however, goes to defense-related activities, including cleaning up the cold war legacy of radioactive waste. Dole has promised not to cut defense, but there is no way to produce the promised cuts in the department’s spending without cutting into defense-related projects. Eliminating all research into the nation’s energy needs and subsidies for electric power production, especially in the Northwest, would provide a large down payment on the department’s cuts, but it would still require a slowdown in the cleanup. Saving some of the R&D and energy production projects would require far deeper cuts in defense-related programs.

Avoiding the cleanup is impossible; the job gets even nastier the longer it is stretched out. The program, moreover, will require a long-term commitment: a fix that lasts 10,000 years or more longer than the written history of life on earth.

This is not to make a case for the Department of Energy, nor to argue that substantial cost savings might not be possible by redefining DOE’s work. The job could be done elsewhere in government, and some functions might be eliminated. But the core mission is a job that government must do. Closing the department will not get it done or make the inevitable any cheaper.

The other pieces of the Dole tax plan reveal similar problems, from threats to weather forecasting and the constitutionally mandated census (in eliminating the Commerce Department) to wildly optimistic assumptions about reducing executive branch “administrative” costs (which in fact turn out to represent the basic costs of providing government services like the FBI or the veterans’ health system).

The executive branch unquestionably needs a continuing, ever-closer look at its operations, and that in turn could produce big savings. But it is impossible to produce savings on the scale assumed by the Dole tax plan by cutting fat; financing the tax cut would demand amputating whole limbs. The Dole tax plan wrongly assumes otherwise as the specter of burping tanks and long-term environmental damage makes clear. In the process, it fails to give voters an honest picture of the choices that the tax cut proposal frames: a radical retrenchment in citizens’ expectations of government, or a retreat from a commitment to a balanced budget.