Cleaning Up Nuclear Facilities:

An Aggressive and Unified Federal Program Is Needed

EMD-82-40: Published: May 25, 1982. Publicly Released: May 25, 1982.

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GAO conducted a review to determine the status of federal efforts and activities to correct decommissioning problems identified in a prior report. In addition to following up on the implementation of the recommendations for correcting these problems, GAO also evaluated how effectively Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Defense (DOD), and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) decommissioning and standard-setting programs were functioning. The review was made as part of a continuing effort to identify issues in the nuclear area, which will provide public health and safety through better federal program administration.

Nuclear facilities and sites that require or eventually will require cleanup or other disposition can be tracked, evaluated, and recorded for follow-up action if needed. In the past, nuclear facilities and sites were abandoned or decommissioned without adequate documentation of their radiological status or even a record of their existence. As a result, federal agencies are uncertain about the location or status of some facilities and sites that may be in need of decommissioning. NRC, DOE, DOD, and EPA are attempting to locate and evaluate the hazards at old, inactive sites. Despite the problems that inadequate recordkeeping systems have caused federal agencies, only DOE is revising its current recordkeeping system to provide sufficient information on the location and radiological condition of its current and future nuclear facilities and sites. Federal decommissioning programs have not sufficiently considered and incorporated decommissioning needs during the facility planning and design phase. DOE and NRC are making some progress in developing comprehensive decommissioning policies which include many of the necessary provisions. DOD has not initiated action to develop a comprehensive decommissioning policy. Standards prescribing acceptable levels of residual radioactive contamination for decommissioned nuclear facilities are not expected to be available until mid-1986. EPA is responsible for setting these standards, but has not done so because it considers their development a low priority.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress has provided funding continuity.

    Matter: Congress, as part of its oversight and budgetary review responsibilities, may wish to closely evaluate the overall priorities of DOE and work with DOE in revising these priorities to provide a consistent flow of funding for cleaning up the inactive facilities.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is still valid, but Congress does not plan to take action in the future.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider providing DOE with the authority to carry out remedial clean-up activities for 20 sites under its Formerly Utilized Sites Program.

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is still valid, but Congress does not plan to take action in the future.

    Matter: Congress, through its legislative and oversight committees, may wish to take an active role in ensuring that radiation standards, to guide decommissioning of nuclear facilities, are issued as soon as possible.

  4. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is still valid, but Congress does not plan to take action in the future.

    Matter: Congress should designate NRC as the lead federal agency for developing and monitoring the implementation of a national policy for the decommissioning of nuclear facilities and sites, ensuring that DOE and DOD provide assistance and input to NRC in developing this policy.

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation is valid and still needed. Congress may wish to act on this recommendation; however, GAO plans no further action.

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider the general approach, suggested by DOE and discussed in this report, related to problems faced in cleaning up and providing funding mechanisms for future facilities.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was implemented by NRC.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should revise the NRC recordkeeping system to provide for: (1) prompt identification of licensees who have stopped operations; (2) effective monitoring of licensee control over contaminated facilities; (3) assurance that facilities are cleaned up when licenses are terminated; and (4) the development and permanent retention in a central repository of records documenting decommissioning activities.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In May 1985, NRC commissioners issued a proposed rule on decommissioning, including funding requirements, for public comment. Thus, this recommendation to reevaluate and/or accelerate the policy timetable is no longer valid.

    Recommendation: The Chairman, NRC, should reevaluate and, if at all possible, accelerate the NRC timetable for issuing a decommissioning policy with a view toward shortening the time required to submit a paper to the commissioners. Shortening the timetable would enable NRC to institute earlier front-end planning and funding requirements for decommissioning NRC-licensed facilities as a condition of licensing. The funding requirements should also be made applicable to currently active licensees.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD established the recommended system.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should provide DOD-wide guidance on documentation needed to identify and monitor facilities using nuclear materials and provide a permanent, centrally retained record of the radiological status of the facilities, either when operations cease, or when decommissioning is completed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD issued instructions to the military branches concerning the recommended facility planning.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should establish a decommissioning program that specifies criteria for selecting tentative decommissioning methods during the facility planning phase and criteria for design features to be incorporated in facility planning.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: This recommendation was implemented by DOE policy.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should establish a decommissioning program that specifies criteria for selecting tentative decommissioning methods during the facility planning phase.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE submitted the recommended legislation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should resubmit the proposed DOE legislation to provide the necessary authority, which it currently lacks, to proceed with remedial clean-up of all sites under the Formerly Utilized Sites Program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA disagreed with this recommendation and took no action.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should reevaluate the priority assigned to developing residual radioactivity standards so that this process can be started immediately.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  8. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA disagreed and did not take any action within the 6-month time frame on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should develop and present to responsible committees of Congress, within 6 months from the date of this report, a plan setting forth the steps that are needed to develop and issue these standards and the dates that each step will be completed.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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