GAO: Make Haste More Slowly on Nuclear Waste Cleanup

WASHINGTON, DC, July 18, 2003 (ENS) - In its efforts to save time and money while cleaning up the nation's high-level radioactive waste from weapons development and production, the U.S. Energy Department is planning to implement technologies that have not been fully tested, the investigative arm of Congress warned in a new report.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) delivered its draft report on the Department of Energy’s $105 billion high-level waste cleanup program to Congress in June. It was released Wednesday by House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, and James Greenwood, a Pennsylvania Republican, who requested the study.

Based on research conducted from July 2003 through May 2003, the report recommends that the Department of Energy (DOE) reassess its approach for incorporating new waste separation technology at the Hanford Nuclear Site in southcentral Washington state.


Radioactive waste inside a tank at the Hanford Nuclear Site (Photo courtesy DOE)
The report warns that a key technical challenge is that "the DOE's approach relies partly on untested methods for separating waste into high-level and low-activity portions."

At the Hanford site, the report states, the DOE is planning to implement such a method "without fully testing the technology - an approach that has failed on other projects in the past, resulting in significant cost increases and schedule delays."

In addition, the report advises the Department of Energy to seek clarification from Congress on the DOE's authority to designate waste as other than high-level waste if a prolonged court challenge occurs. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has initiated just such a court challenge. A federal court ruled in the NRDC case that the agency illegally gave itself the authority to reclassify high-level nuclear waste. The DOE has asked Congress to overturn that ruling.

Finally, the GAO report recommends that the Energy Department ensure that its waste cleanup projects are supported by rigorous analyses, adhere to the best practices in incorporating new technologies, and are carefully evaluated when considering the design and construction of facilities.

The DOE oversees the treatment and disposal of 94 million gallons of highly radioactive waste, a cleanup program the report calls one of the largest in history. The waste - which would fill a football field to a depth of 260 feet - is held at three sites - at Hanford in Washington, at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and at the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory site.

In 2002, the DOE began an initiative to reduce the $105 billion cost of this cleanup and to shorten the estimated time it will take to complete by some 30 years. Its main strategy is to concentrate much of the radioactivity into a smaller volume for permanent disposal in the underground repository that has been designated by the President and Congress at Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

The GAO was asked to determine the status of this initiative, the legal and technical challenges the DOE faces in implementing it, and ways to reduce costs or improve program management. It was produced under the direction of Robin Nazzaro, the GAO director of natural resources and environment.

In his letter to Congressman James Greenwood of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Subcommittee on Oversight and Intelligence of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Nazarro said the DOE efforts to improve the high-level waste cleanup program are "important and necessary" although "the actual savings are unknown at this time."


Congressman James Greenwood of Pennsylvania (Photo courtesy Office of the Congressman)
Opening a hearing Thursday that focused on the GAO report, Greenwood said, "DOE’s high-level waste problem is complicated, challenging, and expensive. It is critical that Congress is confident that the decisions made by the EM [Environmental Management] program will not set us on another path of cost overruns, failed technologies, and billions in taxpayer funds wasted on facilities that are constructed and then later determined to be useless."

There is urgency to move the radioactive waste from the tanks in which it is stored, many of which have exceeded their design life. "Given the age and deteriorating condition of some of the tanks," the GAO states, "there is concern that some of them will leak additional waste into the soil, where it may migrate to the water table."

Yet, the report expresses concerns about the Energy Department's practice of "launching into construction of complex, one-of-a-kind facilities before their final design is sufficiently developed," in an attempt to save time and money.

The DOE's own guidance stresses upfront planning before project construction, yet does not prohibit a "fast track" of concurrent design and construction activities, and DOE "often follows this approach," but it is already creating problems at the Hanford Site, the report states.

Hanford’s 177 large underground waste tanks contain approximately 53 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste from decades of defense production.

At Hanford the DOE is designing and constructing facilities for what the GAO report calls "the largest, most complex environmental cleanup job in the United States," but 24 months after the contract was awarded, the problems are mounting. "The project was 10 months behind schedule dates, construction activities have outpaced design work causing inefficient work sequencing, and DOE has withheld performance fee from the design/contractor because of these problems."

Still, progress is being made at Hanford. In June, the last of the piping between large radioactive waste storage tanks was connected to the site of a treatment plant under construction. Working for the DOE’s Office of River Protection, tank cleanup contractor CH2M HILL Hanford Group, Inc. has been working over the last year to install the transfer route in order to feed waste to Hanford’s Waste Treatment Plant, where the waste will be turned into glass.

“This is an important step in Hanford cleanup, because the tanks are now connected to the site where the waste will be turned into glass,” said Roy Schepens, DOE Office of River Protection Manager. “Treating the waste is key to reducing the risks to the environment, the public, and our Hanford workforce.”

CH2M HILL will now focus its preparations to feed waste to treatment facilities on upgrading 10 of Hanford’s million gallon waste tanks. As waste is retrieved from several older tanks across the Hanford site, it will be stored in those newer, safer tanks until the waste is treated. The site’s Waste Treatment Plant is expected to be fully operational and treating tank waste in 2011.


Entry to one of the facilities at the Savannah River Site (Photo courtesy DOE)
At the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, high-level liquid waste is generated as by-products from the processing of nuclear materials for national defense, research and medical programs. The waste, totaling about 37 million gallons, is currently stored in 49 underground carbon-steel waste tanks grouped into two tank farms.

The GAO report said that at Savannah River, the Energy Department's failure to test its proposed process for separating wastes into high-level and low-activity portions until after facility construction was complete resulted in cost increases and schedule delays. An attempt to speed implementation failed after nearly $500 million had been spent. The DOE now plans to spend an additional $1.8 billion to develop and implement an alternative separation technology, the report states.

The DOE also plans to save time and money by increasing the amount of waste that can be concentrated in canisters that will be sent to a permanent geologic repository, the GAO says. These plans, being developed at the Hanford and Savannah River sites, have not been fully evaluated, and "cost saving estimates have not yet been fully developed," according to DOE officials quoted in the report.

In Idaho, by 2012, the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (INEEL) says it will have achieved "significant risk reduction" and will have placed materials in safe storage ready for disposal. By 2020, the INEEL will have completed all active cleanup work with potential to further accelerate cleanup to 2016.

Nuclear research and other operations at INEEL have left behind contaminants that are a potential risk to human health and the environment at 26 areas of the site.

At the 2020 end state in the plan, INEEL says, some activities will continue - shipment of spent nuclear fuel to a repository; retrieval, treatment, packaging and shipment of calcine high-level waste to a repository, and final dismantlement of remaining environmental management buildings. These activities will be complete by 2035. Even with these continuing activities, the cleanup costs can be reduced by up to $19 billion, and the cleanup schedule can be completed decades earlier, the lab says on its website.

Some areas at INEEL will have residual contamination after the Idaho Completion Project finishes its cleanup work, the laboratory acknowledges. To protect the public and the environment and to preserve natural and cultural resources, the Long-Term Stewardship (LTS) Program will manage and monitor those areas after cleanup work is finished.

A draft Long-Term Stewardship Implementation Plan has been developed, and is available for download at: INEEL is seeking public comment on the activities outlined in the plan. The comment period runs through August 14.

Read the draft GAO report at:

Visit the Hanford Nuclear Site at:

Visit the Savannah River Site at:

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