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United States Government Accountability Office:

GAO:

Testimony:

Before the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, United States 
Senate:

For Release on Delivery:

Expected at 10:00 a.m. EDT Thursday, September 30, 2004:

LOW-LEVEL RADIOACTIVE WASTE:

Future Waste Volumes and Disposal Options Are Uncertain:

Statement of (Ms.) Robin M. Nazzaro, Director:

Natural Resources and Environment:

GAO-04-1097T:

GAO Highlights:

Highlights of GAO-04-1097T, testimony before the Committee on Energy 
and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate

Why GAO Did This Study:

Low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) management concerns persist despite 
the LLRW Policy Act of 1980, as amended, which made states responsible 
for providing for disposal of class A, B, and C LLRW and made the 
Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for the disposal of greater-
than-class C LLRW. This testimony is based on GAO’s June 2004 report, 
which examined the adequacy of disposal availability for class A, B, 
and C wastes, and GAO’s April 2003 report, which assessed recovery 
efforts involving greater-than-class-C waste. This testimony examines 
(1) changes in LLRW disposal availability since 1999, (2) recent LLRW 
disposal volumes and potential future volumes, (3) any current or 
anticipated shortfalls in disposal availability, (4) the potential 
effects of any such shortfalls, (5) the effectiveness of the Act in 
developing regional disposal options for class A, B, and C wastes, and 
(6) the status of DOE’s effort to dispose of greater-than-class-C 
waste.

What GAO Found:

GAO’s June 2004 report identified several changes since 1999 that have 
affected, or might affect, LLRW disposal availability and federal 
oversight. Specifically, one disposal facility plans to close its 
doors to most states, but new options are evolving that might offset 
this shortfall.

According to data from the three commercial disposal facility 
operators, annual LLRW disposal volumes have increased in recent 
years. In conducting this assessment, GAO relied on data from the 
operators because DOE’s national LLRW database was unreliable. The 
timing and volume of future waste needing disposal are uncertain 
because of the difficulty in forecasting disposal shipments from DOE 
and nuclear utilities. 

At current LLRW disposal volumes, disposal availability for class A 
waste is not a problem in the short or longer term. Disposal 
availability appears adequate until mid-2008 for class B and C wastes 
when, if disposal conditions do not change, most states will not have 
a place to dispose of these wastes. 

Nevertheless, users of radioactive materials can continue to minimize 
waste generation, process waste into safer forms, and store waste if 
there are no disposal options for class B and C wastes after 2008. 
While these approaches are costly, GAO did not identify other 
immediate widespread effects.

The Act has not resulted in the development of additional regional 
disposal capacity for class A, B, and C wastes. Factors limiting 
further development include less waste, adequate disposal capacity, 
rising development costs, and public and political resistance in 
states designated to host these facilities. 

DOE has not yet provided a facility for the permanent disposal of 
greater-than-class-C waste, but it is collecting this material to 
address security concerns in the interim. 

Lowering Radioactive Waste into a Concrete Barrier at a Commercial 
Disposal Facility: 

[See PDF for image]

[End of table]

What GAO Recommends:

The reports recommended that DOE improve its database and the 
management of greater-than-class C wastes. DOE is implementing most of 
these recommendations. In addition, GAO suggested that the Congress 
may wish to consider directing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to 
report if LLRW conditions change enough to warrant legislative 
intervention. 

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-04-1097T.

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click 
on the link above. For more information, contact Robin M. Nazzaro at 
(202) 512-3841 or nazzaror@gao.gov.

[End of section]

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee: 

We are pleased to be here today to discuss our past and ongoing work on 
the management of low-level radioactive waste (LLRW). LLRW is an 
inevitable byproduct of nuclear power generation and of government, 
industrial, academic, and medical uses of radioisotopes. LLRW includes 
items such as rags, paper, liquid, glass, metal components, resins, 
filters, and protective clothing that have been exposed to 
radioactivity or contaminated with radioactive material. States' 
management of LLRW continues to be a concern despite two-decade-old 
federal legislation addressing the need for disposal. Under the LLRW 
Policy Act of 1980, as amended (the Act), each state is responsible for 
providing for disposal of LLRW generated within the state, either by 
itself or in cooperation with other states, with the exception of waste 
produced by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the nuclear propulsion 
component of the Department of Navy. The aim of the Act was to provide 
for more LLRW disposal capacity on a regional basis and to more 
equitably distribute responsibility for the management of LLRW among 
the states. As an incentive for states to manage waste on a regional 
basis, the Congress consented to the formation of interstate 
agreements, known as compacts, and granted compact member states the 
authority to exclude LLRW from other compacts or unaffiliated 
states.[Footnote 1]

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is responsible for licensing 
LLRW disposal sites and has divided the wastes covered by the Act into 
categories of increasing levels of hazard exposure, beginning with 
class A, followed by class B and C.[Footnote 2] There are currently 
three commercial LLRW disposal facilities where these wastes can be 
disposed of--the Chem-Nuclear Systems facility in Barnwell County, 
South Carolina, the Envirocare facility in Tooele County, Utah, and the 
US Ecology facility in Benton County, Washington. DOE is responsible 
for disposing of a fourth category of LLRW, known as greater-than-
class-C waste. This latter waste is not generally acceptable for 
disposal near the surface like the other three waste classes.

Our testimony today is based on two reports: (1) our June 2004 report 
in which we examined the adequacy of LLRW disposal availability for 
class A, B, and C wastes;[Footnote 3] this report updated a 1999 
report, in which we found that states were not developing new disposal 
facilities and that within 10 years the only facility available to 
waste generators in most states for class B and C wastes could be 
full,[Footnote 4] and (2) an April 2003 report addressing the status of 
DOE's program to dispose of greater-than-class-C waste.[Footnote 5] As 
you requested, our testimony examines the findings and conclusions of 
these reports and offers a perspective on the effectiveness of the Act. 
Specifically, our testimony examines (1) changes in LLRW disposal since 
1999 that we identified in our 2004 report, (2) recent LLRW disposal 
volumes and potential future volumes, (3) any current or anticipated 
shortfalls in disposal availability, (4) the potential effects of any 
such shortfalls, (5) the effectiveness of the Act in developing 
regional disposal options for class A, B, and C wastes, and (6) the 
status of DOE's effort to dispose of greater-than-class-C material.

In summary:

In June 2004, we identified several changes since 1999 that have 
affected, or might affect, LLRW disposal availability and federal 
oversight. These changes include South Carolina's decision to close the 
Barnwell facility to noncompact states by mid-2008, issuance of a 
license for the Envirocare facility to accept class B and C wastes 
pending approval by the Utah legislature and governor, the potential 
licensing of a new facility in Texas, and the state of Nebraska's 
litigation settlement with the Central Interstate Compact for reneging 
on its compact obligations to build a new facility. We also identified 
changes in federal agency monitoring of LLRW management. DOE no longer 
has appropriated funds to provide technical assistance to the states, 
and the annual requirement that DOE report to the Congress on LLRW 
disposal was terminated effective 2003. Furthermore, in the late 1990s, 
NRC decreased its involvement in LLRW because no disposal sites were 
being developed.

Annual LLRW disposal volumes have increased in recent years; however, 
the timing and level of future volumes needing disposal are uncertain. 
According to data provided by the three commercial LLRW disposal 
facility operators, disposal volumes grew to about 12 million cubic 
feet in 2003, an increase of 200 percent over 1999. Class A waste 
accounted for 99 percent of the disposal volume--DOE's cleanup program 
generated about 78 percent of the total class A waste. The Envirocare 
facility disposed of 99 percent of the nation's class A waste disposed 
of in commercial facilities in 2003 while the Barnwell facility 
disposed of 99 percent of the class B and C wastes that went to 
commercial disposal. We relied on data from these operators because the 
national LLRW database maintained by DOE lacked data on the 
department's waste shipped for commercial disposal and had other 
deficiencies. Even if the data problems are resolved, uncertainties 
will remain regarding the timing and volume of LLRW needing disposal in 
the future, which will largely depend on the disposal decisions made by 
DOE and nuclear utility companies.

There appears to be enough disposal availability to serve the nation's 
needs at least until mid-2008, when generators in many states might 
have a shortfall in disposal availability for their class B and C 
wastes. Disposal availability for class A waste is not a problem in the 
short or longer term, provided that the Envirocare facility continues 
in operation. According to Envirocare, the disposal facility can take 
20 years or more of such waste under its current license. Capacity at 
the Barnwell and Richland facilities, which are licensed to accept all 
three classes of LLRW, is more than sufficient to serve the needs of 
the 14 states within the compacts served by these facilities. However, 
South Carolina has enacted legislation to terminate noncompact states' 
access to this facility after mid-2008. This action will affect the 36 
states that currently rely on Barnwell to dispose of their class B and 
C wastes but are not members of the Atlantic compact.

Users of radioactive materials can continue to minimize waste 
generation, process waste into safer forms, and store waste if there 
are no disposal options for class B and C wastes after 2008. These 
approaches, however, can be costly, with a higher financial burden on 
some licensees than others. Notwithstanding these business costs, we 
did not identify other effects of any shortfalls in disposal 
availability that might have wider implications.

The Act has not resulted in the development of additional regional 
disposal capacity for class A, B and C wastes. As we previously 
reported, several reasons account for this lack of progress: decreased 
waste generation, adequate disposal capacity, the rising cost of 
developing disposal facilities, and public and political resistance in 
states designated to host these facilities.

We reported in April 2003 on DOE's lack of progress in providing a 
permanent disposal facility for greater-than-class-C waste. DOE created 
the Off-Site Source Recovery Project as an interim step toward meeting 
its obligation under the Act. The project provides secure storage for 
material that could be particularly attractive for use in a 
radiological dispersion device, or "dirty bomb." As we reported, the 
project has experienced a number of problems. For example, we noted 
that DOE had inadequate capacity to store certain isotopes, 
particularly sources containing plutonium-239 that in sufficient 
quantity could be used to fabricate a crude nuclear weapon. Such 
sources, in some cases, were not being securely stored and most holders 
of the material expressed their desire to dispose of it as quickly as 
possible.

The two reports discussed in this testimony contained a number of 
recommendations. In our June 2004 report on disposal availability, we 
recommended that the Secretary of Energy halt the dissemination of 
information in its national LLRW database as long as the database has 
shortcomings in its usefulness and reliability. DOE decided to leave 
the database online but has added a notice to users of the database 
regarding inaccuracies and is taking steps to identify and update 
erroneous data. Our report also suggested that the Congress might wish 
to consider directing NRC to report to it if LLRW disposal and storage 
conditions should change enough to warrant consideration of new 
legislation to improve the reliability and cost-effectiveness of 
disposal availability. Our April 2003 report on DOE's Off-Site Source 
Recovery Project recommended that DOE (1) determine whether the 
priority given to the recovery project was commensurate with the threat 
posed by greater-than-class-C sealed sources, (2) provide, as soon as 
possible, storage space for sealed sources containing the isotopes 
plutonium-239, strontium-90, and cesium-137 with the appropriate level 
of security, and (3) initiate the process to develop a permanent 
disposal facility for greater-than-class-C radioactive waste, develop a 
plan to help manage this process, and develop a plan to ensure the 
continued recovery and storage of greater-than-class-C sealed sources 
until such a disposal facility is available. As a result of our 
recommendation, DOE moved the program and realigned management 
responsibility for the project out of the Office of Environmental 
Management and into the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) 
in order to better address the national security risks posed by these 
materials.[Footnote 6] To date, over 10,000 sources have been 
recovered, but more still need to be collected. In addition, DOE has 
added more storage space and is again recovering sources containing 
plutonium-239. DOE is also planning to conduct the initial 
environmental analysis required to develop a permanent disposal 
facility for this waste.

Background:

The disposal of LLRW is the end of the radioactive material life cycle 
that spans production, use, processing, interim storage, and disposal. 
In general, the life cycle starts with the procurement of the 
radioactive isotopes that have medical, industrial, agricultural, and 
research applications. The isotopes come in either sealed or unsealed 
sources. While a metal container shields a sealed source, unsealed 
sources remain accessible in a glass vial or other type of container. 
Common uses of this radioactive material are in radiotherapy, 
radiography, smoke detectors, the irradiation and sterilization of food 
and materials, gauging, and illumination of emergency exit signs. In 
the course of working with these materials, other material, such as 
protective clothing and gloves, pipes, filters, and concrete that come 
in contact with them will become contaminated. The nuclear utility 
industry generates the bulk of this LLRW through the normal operation 
and maintenance of nuclear power plants, and through the 
decommissioning of these plants. Some sealed sources can be recycled 
for other uses that require less radioactivity. Once these materials 
have served their purpose, they become LLRW. Specialized companies or 
those licensed to use these materials can reduce the volume and 
sometimes the radioactivity level of the waste through processing 
before it is either put into a licensed interim storage or a disposal 
facility. After a period of storage, some LLRW can decay to the point 
that it is safe for disposal in regulated landfill sites. During the 
life cycle, there will also be some loss of radioactive materials to 
abandonment, misplacement and theft. Figure 1 diagrams the life-cycle 
process for radioactive materials.

Figure 1: Conceptual Flow Diagram of Radioactive Sources from 
Production to Disposal:

[See PDF for image]

Source: GAO.

[End of figure]

In the 1960s, the Atomic Energy Commission began to encourage the 
development of commercial LLRW disposal facilities to accommodate the 
increased volume of commercial waste that was being generated. Six such 
disposal facilities were licensed, two of which, the facility in 
Washington State, licensed in 1965, and in South Carolina, licensed in 
1971, remain open today.[Footnote 7] Each of these facilities is 
located within the boundaries of or adjacent to a much larger site 
owned by DOE. The third facility in Utah is about 80 miles west of Salt 
Lake City. Utah initially licensed the Envirocare facility in 1988 to 
accept naturally occurring radioactive waste. In 1991, Utah amended the 
license to permit the disposal of some LLRW, and the Northwest Compact 
agreed to allow Envirocare to accept these wastes from noncompact 
states. By 2001, the facility was allowed to accept all types of class 
A waste. Because of its higher radioactive content, greater-than-class-
C waste cannot be disposed of in these commercial disposal facilities. 
Instead, the Act requires DOE to provide a facility for disposing of 
all greater-than-class-C radioactive waste.

Currently, 10 compacts include 43 states: the Appalachian, Atlantic, 
Central, Central Midwest, Northwest, Midwest, Rocky Mountain, 
Southeast, Southwestern, and Texas:

compacts. Seven states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto 
Rico, are unaffiliated. Figure 2 shows the state LLRW compacts and 
unaffiliated states.

Figure 2: State LLRW Compacts and Unaffiliated States:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Since 1999, LLRW Disposal Availability and Federal Oversight Have 
Changed:

In June 2004, we identified a number of important changes that had 
occurred since our 1999 report; these changes have affected, or might 
affect, future disposal availability for these wastes and federal 
oversight of states' LLRW management. Changes that might have 
implications for long-term disposal availability include the following:

* In 2001, South Carolina enacted legislation restricting the use of 
the Barnwell disposal facility to generators in the three-member 
Atlantic compact after mid-2008. In the past, the state legislature 
has changed its position on restricting access to this facility, both 
closing and reopening the facility to noncompact member states over 
the years.

* In 2001, Envirocare received a license from the state regulatory 
authority to accept class B and C wastes pending approval by the Utah 
legislature and governor. Currently, the state has imposed a moratorium 
on approving the use of this license until February 2005, after a 
review of the recommendations of a hazardous waste regulation and 
policy task force. The task force is expected to issue its final report 
by November 2004. Granting approval for Envirocare to use its class B 
and C wastes license could help to alleviate a shortfall in disposal 
availability for class B and C wastes.

* In 2003, Texas enacted legislation designating a geographic area in 
the state as acceptable for a new LLRW disposal facility, and the state 
regulator developed a license application process for this facility. In 
August 2004, a private company submitted a license application to the 
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for approval to construct and 
operate a disposal facility 30 miles west of Andrews, Texas. Current 
projections by the state of Texas suggest that the earliest a facility 
could be licensed is 2007. Non-compact states' access to this facility 
has not been determined. If the Texas facility were allowed to accept 
waste nationally, it would mitigate a potential shortfall in disposal 
availability for class B and C wastes.

* In 2004, the Court of Appeals for the 8TH Circuit affirmed a federal 
district court decision that Nebraska, as a designated host state, is 
liable for $151 million in damages for reneging on its obligations to 
the Central Compact to build a disposal facility. Since the issuance of 
our June 2004 report, the Central Interstate Compact voted to accept a 
settlement with Nebraska for $141 million plus interest. Under the 
settlement, if Nebraska and other compact members negotiate access to 
the proposed disposal facility in Texas, the amount Nebraska would have 
to pay would be reduced to $130 million plus interest.

The remaining changes affect federal agency guidance and oversight of 
LLRW management by the states. These include the following:

* In 2001, DOE significantly diminished its involvement in guiding and 
overseeing LLRW management by the states. DOE's reporting requirement 
on LLRW management, as originally required by the Act, terminated 
effective May 2000. In addition, DOE's technical assistance activities 
under the Act have essentially ended after a period of shifting 
emphasis and decline.

* Since the late 1990s, NRC has decreased its direct involvement in 
states' LLRW management because no new disposal sites were being 
developed and more states have taken on the responsibility for the 
regulation of radioactive material from NRC.

Annual LLRW Disposal Volumes Have Increased, but Future Volumes Are 
Uncertain:

Annual LLRW disposal volumes have increased significantly in recent 
years, primarily the result of cleaning up DOE sites and 
decommissioning nuclear power plants. To obtain disposal volume 
information, we relied on data from the three commercial disposal 
facility operators because the Manifest Management Information System 
(MIMS)--the online commercial disposal LLRW database maintained by DOE-
-is not as up-to-date as the facilities' data and has other 
deficiencies. Future disposal volumes remain uncertain and will depend 
largely on waste disposal decisions by DOE and nuclear utility 
companies.

LLRW Disposal Volumes Have Increased Significantly Since 1999:

Since the beginning of 1999, disposal volumes have steadily increased 
to over 12 million cubic feet in 2003, an increase of over 200 percent. 
Class A waste accounted for 99 percent of all waste disposed of at the 
three commercial disposal facilities. The Envirocare facility received 
99 percent of this class A waste, and about 78 percent of this class A 
waste came from DOE clean up sites. According to Envirocare, DOE has 
increased its shipment of waste to the facility from about 36,000 cubic 
feet in 1994 (6.6 percent of the class A waste disposed) to almost 9.3 
million cubic feet in 2003 (77.8 percent of the class A waste 
disposed). In contrast, disposal volumes of commercial class B waste 
declined 47 percent, from about 23,500 cubic feet in 1999, to about 
12,400 cubic feet by 2003. Commercial class C waste disposal volumes 
were more volatile, changing as much as 107 percent in a single year. 
The total annual disposal volume of class C waste alternately rose and 
fell between 1999 and 2003, with the annual total reaching over 20,000 
cubic feet in 1999, falling as low as about 11,000 cubic feet in 2002, 
then rising to over 23,000 cubic feet in 2003. Of the total class B and 
C wastes disposed of in commercial facilities in 2003, 99 percent went 
to Barnwell.

Concerns about the Completeness and Reliability of National LLRW 
Database:

Because of concerns about data completeness and reliability, we did not 
use the database that DOE maintains and operates for the LLRW community 
and public when we determined recent disposal volumes. Nor did we use 
other information in this database to analyze sources of LLRW by state, 
compact, and generator type because of shortcomings in its usefulness 
and reliability. Instead, we relied on data supplied to us from the 
three commercial disposal operators for our analysis because these data 
include DOE waste volumes sent for commercial disposal, are more up to 
date and are the primary source data input into MIMS.

With respect to data completeness, even though DOE ships large 
quantities of LLRW to a commercial disposal facility, this information 
is not captured in MIMS. Also, other types of information, such as the 
storage of waste and volume of waste reduction, are not collected in 
this database. The consensus among the compact and unaffiliated state 
officials we surveyed was that they could more effectively regulate and 
monitor LLRW in their compacts and states if MIMS offered more 
comprehensive and reliable data. Despite these shortcomings, these 
officials have sometimes used MIMS data as a convenient source of 
information for public, media, and stakeholder inquiries, as a means of 
monitoring LLRW within their compact or region, and as an external 
check on the LLRW interstate shipment data reported to compact and 
state regulators by the disposal operators.

We also identified shortcomings in the reliability of the MIMS 
database. We found inconsistencies between what the disposal facility 
operators claimed had been disposed of at their facilities and what was 
recorded in this database. For example, excluding waste generated by 
DOE, the volumes of LLRW reported to us by Envirocare for 1999 to 2003 
totaled 10.4 million cubic feet, compared to the 15.7 million cubic 
feet reported in MIMS. There were also problems with other kinds of 
data in MIMS. States and compacts have also identified discrepancies 
that undermine the data's usefulness, particularly regarding the state-
specific information on the origins of waste. For example, Tennessee, 
which is the base of operations for companies that transport and 
process the waste from generators in other states prior to disposal, 
reports that it is erroneously recorded in MIMS as the state of origin 
of this waste.

The data DOE puts into MIMS comes from the three commercial LLRW 
disposal facility operators in electronic format. DOE pays each 
operator varying amounts of money to extract data from the records 
accompanying shipments of LLRW that provide information on the volume, 
radioactivity level, source, and other information about the waste. 
These records are called manifests, and NRC requires their use to track 
shipment of radioactive materials. The disposal operator then transmits 
some of this information to DOE for entry into MIMS. Each disposal 
facility operator is responsible for ensuring the validity of these 
data, but DOE's contracts with these operators leave to them what 
steps, if any, should be taken to validate the data. DOE takes no 
responsibility for verifying the accuracy of the data supplied by the 
disposal facility operators. Furthermore, while DOE takes some steps to 
ensure that it accurately uploads operator-supplied data into MIMS, it 
does not perform other systematic quality checks on the data, such as 
"reasonableness" checks, cross tabulations, or exceptions reports. As a 
result, the lack of consistent and comprehensive internal controls, 
such as controls over information processing, undermine our confidence 
in the data output in MIMS for several types of information, including 
sources of waste coming from states, compacts, and generator types.

We recommended in our June 2004 report that the Secretary of Energy 
halt dissemination of information in DOE's national LLRW database as 
long as the database has shortcomings in its usefulness and 
reliability. DOE subsequently decided to leave the database online but 
has added a notice to users of the database regarding inaccuracies and 
is taking steps to identify and update erroneous data.

Uncertainties Surround Projecting Future LLRW Disposal Volumes:

Notwithstanding problems obtaining comprehensive and reliable LLRW 
disposal data, uncertainties remain concerning the timing and volume of 
LLRW needing disposal in the future, which largely will depend on the 
disposal decisions made by nuclear utility companies and DOE, as well 
as on possible changes in regulatory standards for what constitutes 
LLRW. For example, officials at DOE told us that projections for sites 
now being cleaned up have not proven very accurate, and have tended to 
significantly overestimate waste volumes that would require disposal as 
LLRW. They cited several reasons for this difficulty: records from 
"legacy" sites--former nuclear weapons production sites that DOE is 
cleaning up--have not proven to be reliable; the decay rate of known 
buried radioactive wastes have often been higher than expected so 
wastes that were expected to need disposal as LLRW can instead be 
legally classified as radioactive waste mixed with nonradioactive but 
hazardous wastes and sent to less expensive disposal facilities; 
contractors have become more innovative and skilled in sorting and 
segregating hazardous and mixed wastes from LLRW so that a higher 
percentage of wastes can be disposed of as hazardous or mixed wastes 
rather than LLRW; and some debris and material from site cleanup 
projected to be LLRW has no appreciable radioactivity when generated 
and can therefore be disposed in sanitary landfills or other non-LLRW 
disposal facilities. There are some indications that the volume of DOE 
cleanup waste likely to be sent to commercial LLRW disposal facilities 
could currently be at or near a peak and could soon rapidly decline as 
cleanup at some DOE sites winds down and as cleanup activity shifts to 
other DOE sites that have considerable on-site disposal capacity. As a 
result, DOE officials expect the use of commercial LLRW disposal 
facilities will start declining after 2006 and will stay comparatively 
low until another anticipated spike in 2014. DOE officials stressed, 
however, that "high confidence numbers" are not yet available because 
the department is still in the process of reorganizing and developing 
new baselines for its accelerated cleanup projects, and it does not 
have a management system in place to develop corresponding waste 
projections.

Potential changes to the threshold at which waste is classified as LLRW 
are currently under consideration and could affect the amount of waste 
needing disposal in the future. The National Research Council and the 
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are separately studying this 
issue and considering possible changes that might affect the future 
management of LLRW. The National Research Council is studying the issue 
because members of its Board on Radioactive Waste Management are 
concerned that the statutes and regulations governing LLRW management 
may be overly restrictive in some cases, leading to excessive costs and 
other burdens on the waste generator and, in other cases, may lead to 
an exaggeration of the potential risks posed by these materials. EPA is 
examining its existing waste regulations and has begun soliciting 
public comment as it considers new rulemaking in this area. 
Specifically, EPA is exploring an option with NRC to establish a 
regulatory framework that allows some of the lower activity radioactive 
waste to be disposed of at non-LLRW disposal facilities. Finally, and 
in a similar vein, government and industry LLRW stakeholders have 
discussed harmonizing U.S. standards with the prevailing international 
standards for LLRW under consideration by the International Atomic 
Energy Agency. Such a change could prompt U.S. regulators to consider 
raising the threshold at which the radioactivity of waste would trigger 
regulation as LLRW and would allow for lower activity LLRW to be 
disposed of under other regulatory regimes.

LLRW Disposal Availability Appears Adequate Until Mid-2008:

Disposal availability appears adequate to serve the nation's needs at 
least until mid-2008, when many states might lose disposal access for 
their class B and C wastes. Disposal availability for class A waste is 
not a problem in the short or longer term. According to Envirocare 
representatives, their disposal site, which accepted over 99 percent of 
the nation's commercially disposed of class A waste in 2003, has enough 
capacity to accept this waste at the current volume levels for more 
than 20 years. The Richland facility has about 21 million cubic feet of 
capacity remaining for all classes of waste, which is more than enough 
to accommodate the LLRW coming from the 11 states in the Northwest and 
Rocky Mountain compacts until the expected closure of this facility in 
2056. The Barnwell disposal facility has about 2.7 million cubic feet 
of remaining capacity, most of which has been set aside for waste from 
generators in the Atlantic Compact until 2050. Barnwell also appears to 
have enough disposal capacity to continue accepting class B and C 
wastes from other states until mid-2008, when it is scheduled to close 
to all but the three Atlantic compact states. According to the Director 
of Disposal Services at Chem-Nuclear Systems, the operator of the 
Barnwell facility, there should be enough space at the facility to 
accommodate the typical 20,000 to 25,000 cubic feet of class B and C 
wastes accepted at this facility in recent years. This representative 
told us that many generators have already contracted to dispose of 
their B and C wastes in the short-term, and any generator outside of 
the Atlantic Compact anticipating a need to dispose of these wastes 
could still contract for the necessary space until mid-2008.

A number of factors support the likelihood that disposal space for 
class B and C wastes will be available at Barnwell until mid-2008, if 
disposal volumes do not exceed anticipated levels. Based on current 
space commitments at this disposal facility under the conditions of the 
volume caps set by the South Carolina legislature, there remains 
between 24,500 to 44,500 cubic feet of uncommitted space until 2008. 
The amount of space available depends on whether Atlantic Compact 
generators use all of their set-aside space through 2008. In addition, 
utilities are likely to take more aggressive efforts to ensure 
sufficient space for class B and C wastes at Barnwell. Industry 
officials said utilities might consider several initiatives and 
conditions that could alleviate the diminishing disposal availability 
for class B and C wastes. For example, utilities could send class A 
waste to Envirocare rather than Barnwell to save the remaining space at 
Barnwell for class B and C wastes. In addition, utilities might 
increase waste reduction efforts and storage.

After 2008, disposal availability for the class B and C wastes 
generated in the 36 states outside the Northwest, Rocky Mountain, and 
Atlantic compacts is more uncertain. Disposal availability for these 
states will depend on a number of possibilities, including extending 
access to Barnwell beyond mid-2008 or creating new disposal options for 
these classes of waste. The Barnwell facility has opened and closed to 
noncompact member states before and could again. Given the difficulties 
of attracting class A waste to Barnwell because of the high disposal 
fees, and the fairly consistent level of class B and C wastes shipped 
to this site each year, the facility might not even reach its volume 
cap of 35,000 cubic feet per year after 2008. In addition, the set-
aside of 2.2 million cubic feet for Atlantic Compact generators through 
2050 may be negotiated downward, freeing up additional space at this 
disposal facility. It is also possible that new disposal options will 
become available in the future that could alleviate any disposal crisis 
for class B and C wastes. Finally, regardless of the outcome, 
representatives of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy 
organization of the nuclear energy industry, said that utilities, the 
greatest generator of class B and C wastes, can store these wastes on 
site if they have no disposal option.

Any LLRW Disposal Shortfall After Mid-2008 Unlikely to Pose Immediate 
Problem:

If after mid-2008, there are no new disposal options for class B and C 
wastes, licensed users of radioactive materials can continue to 
minimize waste generation, process waste into safer forms, and store 
waste pending the development of additional disposal options. These 
approaches, however, can be costly, with a higher financial burden on 
some licensees than others. Notwithstanding these business costs, we 
did not identify other effects of any shortfalls in disposal 
availability that might have wider implications.

LLRW Minimization and Storage Can Lessen Effects of Any Disposal 
Shortfall:

The licensed users of radioactive materials that must eventually 
dispose of their LLRW have employed a variety of techniques to both 
minimize and process this waste to reduce its volume before storage and 
eventual disposal. These techniques include substituting 
nonradioactive materials for radioactive materials, separating 
radioactive materials from nonradioactive materials, recycling, 
compaction, dilution, and incineration. For example, it is reported 
that most large research institutions make concerted efforts to find 
suitable and appropriate alternatives to the use of radioactive 
materials. One university official told us that such efforts have 
reduced LLRW generation at his institution by 30 percent in the last 5 
years. The Electric Power Research Institute is encouraging nuclear 
utilities to use vendor volume reduction programs for resins, the 
single largest component of class B and C wastes, to reduce volume. 
Some licensees have used processors to super-compact class A waste to 
achieve up to a 5,000 percent reduction in volume, or to reduce this 
waste to ash through incineration, albeit increasing the concentration 
of radioisotopes.

In addition to minimizing LLRW, licensees can decide to store this 
waste when no disposal option is available to them. In order to obtain 
a license to possess radioactive materials, entities must demonstrate 
the technical capability to safely manage them. These entities give 
various reasons for storing waste, including allowing short-lived 
radioactive materials to decay to innocuous levels to avoid the need 
for disposal in a more expensive LLRW facility, the prohibitively high 
cost of disposal for some licensees, and concerns about the potential 
liability of sending the waste to a disposal site. Universities and 
biomedical companies generally rely on storage for decay for their 
LLRW, although finding space within large research institutions in 
urban settings is more difficult. The high cost of LLRW disposal can 
also pose financial problems for some licensees. Over the last 25 
years, disposal costs have risen from $1 per cubic foot of LLRW to over 
$400 per cubic foot, with projections of well over $1,000 per cubic 
foot in the future. For some LLRW, the Barnwell disposal facility now 
charges $1,625 per cubic foot. These disposal costs can reach hundreds 
of millions of dollars for utility companies that are decommissioning 
their nuclear power plants. NRC reported to us that the cost to fully 
decommission a plant could run as high as $675 million. Finally, some 
licensees will not send their LLRW to disposal facilities because they 
are concerned that the mixing of their waste with other waste might 
draw them into litigation if the disposal site should ever require 
cleanup under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, 
and Liability Act of 1980, as amended (commonly referred to as 
Superfund).

While NRC policy favors disposal rather than storage over the long-
term, since the mid-1990s the Commission has allowed on-site storage of 
LLRW without a specified time limit as long as it is safe. The 
Commission took this approach in part because LLRW can be stored and 
the states were not developing any new disposal facilities. NRC's and 
Agreement States' (that is, states that have taken over the 
responsibility for regulating radioactive materials from NRC) license 
and inspection programs help ensure the safe management of stored LLRW. 
However, some licensees are concerned that a fire, flood, or earthquake 
might cause an unintended radioactive release. If an emergency ever 
should arise from stored LLRW, NRC has authority under the Act to 
override any compact restrictions to allow shipment of LLRW to a 
regional or other nonfederal disposal facility, if necessary under 
narrowly defined conditions, and to eliminate an immediate and serious 
threat to the public health and safety or to the common defense and 
security. Since September 11, 2001, the perception of the risks posed 
by potential use of stored LLRW by terrorists has increased. A recent 
report found that at least a few radioisotopes of greatest security 
concern are classified as LLRW. According to the report, while 
radiological dispersal devices, such as a dirty bomb, are not weapons 
of mass destruction, they could cause mass disruption, dislocation, and 
adverse financial consequences associated with decontamination and 
rebuilding. NRC officials told us that as the volume and duration of 
stored LLRW increases so might the safety and security risks.

LLRW Minimization and Storage Can Be Costly:

Waste minimization and storage can alleviate the need for disposal, but 
they can be costly. The licensees that we interviewed provided many 
instances of the high cost of managing LLRW. For example, one 
university recently built a $12 million combined hazardous and 
radioactive waste management facility, of which two-thirds is devoted 
to processing and temporarily storing class A waste. A medical center 
official took us to a small (12' x12') LLRW interim storage and 
processing room that cost the institution about $150,000 to construct 
to meet stringent health and environmental standards. Costs are also 
associated with operating storage facilities. Representatives from one 
university system told us that the system spends about $100,000 
annually to maintain its interim storage building in a remote area of 
the state. Added to the cost of building and operating a storage 
facility is the cost of securing it. Such costs have been accounted for 
in higher utility rates, university overhead charges, drug prices, and 
medical treatments. These costs of doing business are more difficult 
for some entities to absorb than others. Representatives from several 
biotechnology companies told us that the industry, particularly the 
smaller start-up companies, are not prepared for the financial cost of 
storing and securing LLRW.

No Other Widespread Effects Detected of Shortfall in LLRW Disposal 
Availability:

Notwithstanding the cost of minimizing and storing LLRW, we did not 
detect widespread national impacts on LLRW generators that have 
resulted or might result from any disposal shortfalls. In a survey we 
administered to compact and unaffiliated state LLRW officials regarding 
documented effects on LLRW generators of any restricted disposal 
availability, the officials raised few concerns. We then sought 
information from a broader constituency to determine whether any 
problems were occurring. We collaborated with medical researchers at 
the University of Texas to seek information from two overlapping groups 
involved in LLRW management: the approximately 2,000 subscribers of the 
RadSafe Listserv, a listserv for radiation safety officers, and the 
approximately 6,000 members of the Health Physics Society, a scientific 
and professional organization whose members specialize in occupational 
and environmental radiation safety. We sought information on any known 
cases where there have been or might be adverse effects on research 
activities and clinical practice stemming from costs or difficulties 
related to the storage and disposal of LLRW. Specifically, we e-mailed 
questionnaires asking if these factors have caused or might cause a 
discontinuance or disapproval of any research or clinical endeavors to 
RadSafe listserv subscribers and placed a notice in the Health Physics 
Society's newsletter asking for volunteers to answer the same questions 
we sent to the listserv subscribers. We obtained an extremely low 
response rate to these questionnaires--14 responses from listserv 
subscribers and 6 from Health Physics Society members. Because these 
were a nonprobability sample surveys, the results are not generalizable 
and can only be used for anecdotal purposes. Of these respondents, only 
two said that the difficulties associated with LLRW had adversely 
affected research or clinical practice. Several respondents cited the 
challenges of dealing with LLRW but also noted that they work around 
the difficulties through waste minimization, including substituting 
nonradioactive materials for radioactive materials when possible, and 
on-site storage as needed. The survey results provided no evidence of 
any widespread effects on research activities and clinical practice 
stemming from costs or difficulties related to the storage and disposal 
of LLRW in the last 5 years. Other published information was largely 
consistent with our findings.

Owing to the uncertainties regarding future disposal availability and 
the safety and security of storing waste, our report suggested that the 
Congress may wish to consider directing NRC to report to it if LLRW 
disposal and storage conditions should change enough to warrant 
consideration of new legislation to improve the reliability and cost 
effectiveness of disposal availability.

The Act Has Not Accomplished Goal of Providing More Region Disposal 
Capacity:

The Act has not effectively facilitated the development of additional 
regional disposal capacity for class A, B, and C wastes. Although a 
nuclear industry association estimates that expenditures may now have 
reached approximately $1 billion on various facility development 
efforts, only one new commercial LLRW disposal facility has been 
developed since passage of the Act--the Envirocare facility--and this 
facility was not developed at the instigation of the compact in which 
it operates. As we reported in 2004, the conditions dampening any 
impetus to developing new disposal facilities for class A, B and C 
wastes have not changed since 1999. These conditions include a 
combination of factors: significant decreases in commercial LLRW 
generation, available capacity at the three existing facilities to meet 
national disposal needs, and rising costs of developing disposal 
facilities. Developing new LLRW disposal facilities also encountered 
public and political resistance in states designated to host these 
facilities.

DOE Has Not Provided a Disposal Facility for Greater-Than-Class-C Waste 
but Is Collecting This Material:

In our April 2003 report, we provided information on DOE's efforts to 
recover and dispose of greater-than-class-C sealed radioactive sources. 
As you know, since September 11, 2001, there has been a great deal of 
concern about the control of sealed sources containing radioactive 
material that are used in medicine, agriculture, research, and industry 
throughout the United States. The radioactive material in these sources 
is encapsulated, or sealed, in metal--such as stainless steel, 
titanium, or platinum--to prevent its dispersal. The small size and 
portability of the sealed sources make them susceptible to misuse, 
improper disposal, and theft. If these sealed sources fell into the 
hands of terrorists, they could be used as simple and crude but 
potentially dangerous radiological weapons, commonly called dirty 
bombs.

Certain sealed sources are considered particularly attractive for 
potential use in dirty bombs because, among other things, they contain 
more concentrated amounts of radioactive material such as americium-
241, cesium-137, plutonium-238, plutonium-239, and strontium-90. 
Applications of greater-than-class-C sealed sources include portable 
and fixed gauges used by the construction industry for testing the 
moisture content of soil, medical pacemakers, medical diagnostics and 
treatments, gauges used for petroleum exploration, and government and 
private research and development. While a study by the Idaho National 
Engineering Laboratory estimates that there currently could be about 
250,000 to 500,000 greater-than-class-C sealed sources in the United 
States, the actual number of greater-than-class-C sealed sources that 
are no longer wanted is not known because no one kept track of this 
information.

The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Amendments Act of 1985[Footnote 
8] requires DOE to provide a facility for disposing of all greater-
than-class-C radioactive waste, including greater-than-class-C sealed 
sources that are no longer wanted by their owners. A permanent disposal 
facility has not yet been developed, but in the interim, DOE created 
the Off-Site Source Recovery Project that, since fiscal year 1999, has 
been recovering unwanted greater-than-class-C sealed sources from their 
owners and temporarily storing them at the Los Alamos National 
Laboratory in New Mexico. NNSA officials told us that, to date, the 
project has recovered over 10,000 sealed sources.

In April 2003, we reported that DOE's Off-Site Source Recovery Project 
faced three problems that could hinder future recovery efforts. First, 
we reported that DOE's Office of Environmental Management, which was 
responsible for the Off-Site Source Recovery Project at the time of our 
report, had a questionable long-term commitment to the project. The 
project did not receive full funding because of other higher-priority 
projects, and officials from the Office of Environmental Management 
told us that they would have liked responsibility for the project to be 
placed in another DOE office because of inconsistencies between the 
mission of the project and the main mission of the Office of 
Environmental Management to accelerate the cleanup and closure of 
contaminated DOE weapons development facilities.

Second, we reported that the Off-Site Source Recovery Project was 
unable to recover any additional sealed sources containing plutonium-
239 (which, in sufficient quantity, could be used to fabricate a crude 
nuclear weapon) because there was no more space at the Los Alamos 
National Laboratory that met DOE's security standards for storing these 
sources. As a result, about 150 holders (mostly universities) of over 
400 unwanted sources containing plutonium-239 were forced to retain 
them and keep them properly secured until space became available. In 
some instances, sealed sources at these facilities were stored in 
unlocked and open rooms, and most holders expressed their desire to 
dispose of the sources as quickly as possible. In addition to 
plutonium-239, at the time of our report, DOE had not approved a means 
for temporarily storing sources containing strontium-90 and cesium-137.

Finally, we reported that, as of February 2003, DOE's Office of 
Environmental Management had not made progress toward providing for the 
permanent disposal of greater-than-class-C radioactive waste, and it 
was unlikely to provide such a facility by fiscal year 2007 as it had 
planned because it is not a priority within the office. Specifically, 
the office had not begun the first step in developing a disposal 
facility--completing an appropriate analysis as required by the 
National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and its implementing 
regulations. Such an analysis would likely take the form of an 
Environmental Impact Statement. Officials from DOE's Office of 
Environmental Management told us that funding had been provided in 
fiscal years 2002 and 2003 to conduct an environmental analysis, but 
these funds had been reallocated to other priorities.

Our April 2003 report recommended that DOE determine whether the 
priority given to the Off-Site Source Recovery Project was commensurate 
with the threat posed by greater-than-class-C sealed sources and ensure 
that adequate resources are devoted to the project to cover the costs 
of recovering and storing these sealed sources as quickly as possible. 
In addition, we recommended that DOE take immediate action to provide 
secure storage space for unwanted sealed sources containing plutonium-
239, strontium-90, and cesium-137. Furthermore, we recommended that DOE 
initiate the process to develop a permanent disposal facility for 
greater-than-class-C radioactive waste as required by the LLRW Policy 
Amendments Act and develop a plan to ensure the continued recovery and 
storage of greater-than-class-C sealed sources until such a disposal 
facility is available.

DOE has made progress addressing the problems we identified. 
Specifically, to address the problem of the low priority given to the 
Off-Site Source Recovery Project within the Office of Environmental 
Management, DOE transferred the project to NNSA in October 2003. Now 
renamed the U.S. Radiological Threat Reduction Program, the project is 
managed by NNSA's Office of Global Radiological Threat Reduction and is 
part of NNSA's larger efforts to secure potential dirty bomb material 
worldwide. The project has also experienced funding increases following 
the transfer. According to NNSA officials, the project was appropriated 
nearly $2 million in fiscal year 2004 and received an additional $3.5 
million that was transferred by the Secretary of Energy from the Office 
of Environmental Management. In addition, the project completed 
spending from an additional $10 million that the Congress appropriated 
in August 2002 as part of the 2002 Supplemental Appropriations Act for 
Further Recovery from and Response to Terrorist Attacks on the United 
States.[Footnote 9] In total, the project spent about $8 million in 
fiscal year 2004. In our view, funding for this effort must be 
sustained for the foreseeable future to continue progress in the 
recovery of material that potentially could be fabricated into dirty 
bombs.

With regard to the continued recovery of sealed sources containing 
plutonium-239, NNSA completed the security requirements for accepting 
additional plutonium-239 at Los Alamos National Laboratory. NNSA 
officials also told us that additional storage capacity has become 
available at the Nevada Test Site for additional plutonium-239 storage. 
The project began recovering plutonium-239 sources in November 2003. As 
of September 2004, the project has recovered over 260 sources 
containing plutonium-239. Although the project estimated at the time of 
our report that there were over 400 unwanted plutonium-239 sources, 
NNSA officials told us that about 400 additional excess sources have 
been identified that will be recovered. Recovered sources are stored at 
Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Nevada Test Site until they are 
eventually shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New 
Mexico, for permanent disposal. According to an NNSA official, these 
shipments are due to begin in April 2005.

According to NNSA officials, the project started recovery of large 
strontium-90 sources in February 2004 and has recovered four of the six 
known large strontium-90 sources in the United States. The project 
plans to recover the remaining two large strontium-90 sources in fiscal 
year 2005. For cesium-137 sources, NNSA officials told us that they are 
currently working to find commercial partners to leverage existing 
disposal and recycling options for this material and to securely store 
cesium-137 sources in the interim.

Finally, in response to our recommendation that DOE initiate the 
process to develop a permanent disposal facility for greater-than-
class-C radioactive waste, DOE transferred the responsibility for 
developing the environmental analysis from the Office of Environmental 
Management to DOE's Office of Environment, Safety, and Health. DOE 
plans to publish an Advance Notice of Intent to prepare an 
Environmental Impact Statement. This Environmental Impact Statement 
will evaluate disposal options and other considerations. However, DOE 
has been unable to tell us when the Advance Notice of Intent will be 
published or when DOE expects to complete the Environmental Impact 
Statement.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be happy to 
respond to any questions that you or Members of the Committee may have.

Contacts and Acknowledgements:

For further information about this testimony, please contact me at 
(202) 512-3841. Gene Aloise, Ryan T. Coles, Daniel Feehan, Doreen 
Feldman, Richard Kasden, Thomas Laetz, Ilene Pollack, Leslie Pollock, 
Carol Herrnstadt Shulman, and Kevin Tarmann made key contributions to 
this testimony.

(360521):

FOOTNOTES

[1] Generators of LLRW located in compact or unaffiliated states that 
do not have their own disposal facility can contract with a disposal 
facility in another compact if this compact allows them to do so.

[2] Radioactive waste is classified by type of radionuclide (e.g., 
americium-241) and concentration of radioactivity (often measured in 
curies per gram). 

[3] GAO, Low-Level Radioactive Waste: Disposal Availability Adequate in 
the Short Term, but Oversight Needed to Identify Any Future Shortfalls. 
GAO-04-604 (Washington, D.C.: June 9, 2004).

[4] GAO, Low-Level Radioactive Wastes: States Are Not Developing 
Disposal Facilities, GAO/RCED-99-238 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 17, 
1999). 

[5] GAO, Nuclear Nonproliferation: DOE Action Needed to Ensure 
Continued Recovery of Unwanted Sealed Radioactive Sources. GAO-03-483 
(Washington, D.C. April 15, 2003). 

[6] NNSA has combined the recovery project with other nonproliferation 
activities under the U.S. Radiological Threat Reduction Program. 

[7] Under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission, four other 
commercial disposal facilities were licensed in the 1960s, including 
facilities in Illinois, Kentucky, Nevada, and New York. 

[8] Pub. L. No. 99-240.

[9] Pub. L. No. 107-206.