New Lab to Tackle Nuclear Nightmare

The daunting job of cleaning up the nation's nuclear weapons complex is about to get some sorely needed scientific muscle: The Department of Energy (DOE) is nearing completion of a $230 million laboratory to develop new cleanup techniques. The facility was dedicated in a ceremony earlier this week.

The Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL) is located next to one of DOE's most contaminated sites, the Hanford nuclear reservation in Richland, Washington. It will showcase the world's most powerful nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer for analyzing molecules and a virtual laboratory in which scientists can collaborate without having to travel to Hanford. EMSL will have a staff of 270 people and an annual budget of up to $70 million. DOE plans to have the facility running by January 1997.

The cost of the nuclear cleanup, now being funded to the tune of $6 billion a year, could ultimately exceed $1 trillion. "There's a lot of political pressure to make progress, but from a technical point of view, many of the answers just aren't there," says Thomas Leschine, a public policy expert at the University of Washington: "We're relying on unproven technologies when the problem still requires a lot more basic research." That's why EMSL director Thom Dunning compares his lab's potential payoff to that of the Manhattan project--which led to the mess in the first place.