Support Crosscut

Nuclear treaty debate lets GOP’s right get its glow on

The Tri-Cities area has led the nation in job growth over the past five years, and it’s the only place in Washington state that saw jobs grow between September 2009 and September 2010. As the Tri-City Herald reported earlier this month, the performance has more than a little to do with extra stimulus dollars — $1.96 billion — poured into the cleanup of nuclear waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

The need for a cleanup is obvious. Just last week, the Herald carried reports about workers finding soil contaminated to 10 times lethal levels and other workers setting traps for a mouse believed to be contaminated with radiation. 

But in light of this month’s election, there’s certainly not going to be any renewal of stimulus funding, even for a moral obligation of the federal government, which is what the cleanup is. As the Herald noted, employment at the reservation is expected to begin declining by 2012, because the stimulus money will be spent by next September.

For all the election talk about austerity and controlling federal spending, however, it seems that some national laboratories and other facilities working on nuclear matters will get additional money, in amounts that easily surpass the Hanford stimulus money. And it’s in part to win the support of right-wing Republican senators, led by conservative Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, who are reluctant to support the strategic arms treaty with Russia that President Barack Obama is trying to get ratified by the Senate.

Even before the election, Obama had pledged $80 billion in new spending for nuclear weapons modernization and the national laboratories that oversee the work. Despite strong support from mainstream Republicans, including Sen. Richard Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kyl has been holding up the treaty with Russia. Hoping to finally meet Kyl’s desires on weapons modernization (which sounds innocuous but can also make weapons more effective), Obama recently added $4.1 billion in additional spending.

On Friday (Nov. 19), the Albuquerque Journal reported that with the new money, Obama’s budget for new nuclear weapons would be 20 percent higher than the figures used by the Bush administration when it left office. The Journal said the Obama budget includes  an acknowledgement of rising costs for a new Los Alamos, N.M., facility originally estimated at $600 million but now thought to cost as much as $5.8 billion when it’s completed in 2020.

The Los Alamos project, which is still in the design stages, is described as a “plutonium lab complex.” When the project is completed in another decade, the Hanford cleanup will still be trying to address a legacy of massive contamination that dates back to plutonium production for the bombing of Nagasaki, Japan, and the subsequent massive arms build-up with the old Russian-dominated Soviet Union. So, now, we are left debating how much additional money to throw at new plutonium facilities and nuclear weapons spending generally to win the right wing’s permission to step back a bit farther from the nuclear brink with Russia.

Support Crosscut