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Study Outlines New Plan for Remediating Nuclear Weapons Complex Mess

Energy Department’s Institutional Problems are Main Obstacle to Environmentally and Financially Sound “Clean-Up” Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. (October 1997): Poor management, lack of clean-up standards, bad data, and incompetent engineering are the main obstacles preventing creation of a sound program to deal with the environmental legacy of U.S. nuclear weapons production, according to a report released today.

Containing the Cold War Mess: Restructuring the Environmental Management of the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex, written by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER), analyzes flaws in current Energy Department programs and outlines a plan for revamping the Department’s “clean-up” work.

“Lack of coordination among DOE divisions, misplaced priorities, and inconsistent data are causing needless problems in a job that is already difficult by its nature,” said Marc Fioravanti, IEER Staff Engineer and principal author of the report. Other problems cited in the report include:

  • DOE’s opposition to national environmental remediation and waste management standards, which the Environmental Protection Agency abandoned under pressure from DOE;
  • attachment to Cold War technologies such as reprocessing (the extraction of plutonium from irradiated fuel); and
  • the absence of a meaningful technical review process.

“Institutional flaws are preventing the creation of sound remediation and waste management plans,” said IEER President Dr. Arjun Makhijani, co-author of Containing the Cold War Mess. “DOE seems incapable of learning lessons from its many failures. It continues to rush into large projects without adequate preparatory work, grants huge budget increases without engineering review, and repeats the same mistakes.”

The report focuses on three case studies of major DOE programs:

  • management of transuranic waste (which contains large concentrations of plutonium and similar elements) at sites in Idaho, Washington, New Mexico, Tennessee, and South Carolina;
  • continuing problems with high-level radioactive wastes at the Hanford Site in Washington;
  • the failed pilot plant effort at Fernald, Ohio, to manage large volumes of soil highly-contaminated with radium and toxic metals.

In the case of plutonium-contaminated waste, the study criticizes DOE for focusing on putting material that is now stored relatively safely into an underground repository rather than dealing with buried wastes that are contaminating groundwater in Idaho, South Carolina, and Tennessee. This is contrary to DOE’s stated goal of addressing urgent priorities first.

The study also points out numerous examples of mismanagement of plutonium-contaminated waste and cites egregious discrepancies in DOE data. At Savannah River Site, for instance, between 1983 and 1996 the estimated volume of plutonium-contaminated waste went from 31,000 cubic meters to 4,870 cubic meters while the radioactivity estimate went from 7,600 curies to 33,700 curies. At Los Alamos National Laboratory the discrepancy in the amount of plutonium in waste between two government figures is nearly 1,700 pounds. “The numbers jump around from year to year and one publication to the next without scientifically plausible explanations,” noted Fioravanti.

Steve Hopkins of the Snake River Alliance, a grassroots group that monitors DOE’s Idaho Laboratory, discussed the dismal failure of a major DOE project. “The first effort to remove and treat plutonium-contaminated waste in shallow land dumps above the Snake River Plain Aquifer has been ruined by contractor incompetence and an inappropriate contracting arrangement.” Hopkins expressed concern that if underlying institutional flaws are not corrected, the country will spend billions of dollars and communities will still be stuck with unacceptable environmental risks.

The report warns that DOE is likely to run into major problems addressing its most costly program — the high-level waste tanks at Hanford — if it does not learn the lessons from project failures at other sites. “DOE is on a needlessly risky course that may create more environmental problems in the future,” said Fioravanti. “Much of DOE’s plan for treatment and waste disposal is technically and environmentally unsound. DOE is limiting its options for waste treatment without having done adequate technical work. It will leave much radioactivity in the tanks, put large amounts of waste in shallow land burial sites, and make it difficult or impossible to protect groundwater and the Columbia River.”

At the Fernald, Ohio, site, lack of basic engineering judgment, improper design and construction procedures, and weak DOE oversight led to the failure of a pilot plant to treat radium-contaminated waste. Additionally, short-term measures meant to reduce risks are failing and will complicate future work.

The study gives DOE credit for having done a number of investigations since 1989 that have helped define the scope of the environmental management problems in the complex. It also notes that some efforts have succeeded in reducing short-term risks, such as the problem of hydrogen build-up in one Hanford high-level waste tank.

Containing the Cold War Mess urges President Clinton to appoint a commission to recommend a new institutional structure for DOE’s environmental management program. IEER suggests the creation a new federally-owned corporation with a majority of board of directors and top executives chosen by the governors of the states which host major DOE sites. “Three things are crucial for a meaningful reorganization of the program,” said Dr. Makhijani. “First, it must do more than put a new nameplate on the same flawed operation. Second, there must be a set of stringent, national clean-up standards that are independently enforced. Third, there must be external peer review of major projects.”

“DOE has done a grave disservice to taxpayers and the communities near its plants by spending $40 billion over the last eight years without a sound plan or standards. These sites cannot be abandoned as ‘national sacrifice areas.’ That would create unacceptable security concerns, risks of fires and explosions, and severe contamination of water resources,” said Dr. Makhijani.

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