Nuclear Waste:

Agreement Among Agencies Responsible for the West Valley Site Is Critically Needed

GAO-01-314: Published: May 11, 2001. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2001.

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The West Valley nuclear facility in western New York State was built in the 1960s to convert spent nuclear fuel from commercial reactors into reusable nuclear fuel. New York State, the owner of the site, and the Atomic Energy Commission--the predecessor of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and the Department of Energy (DOE)--jointly promoted the venture. However, the timing of the venture was poor because the market for reprocessed nuclear fuel was limited and because new, more restrictive health and safety standards raised concerns about the facility. West Valley was shut down in the 1970s, and Congress enacted the West Valley Demonstration Project Act in 1980, which brought DOE to West Valley to carry out cleanup activities. This report examines the: (1) status of the cleanup; (2) factors that may be hindering the cleanup; (3) degree of certainty in the Department's estimates of total cleanup costs and schedule; and (4) degree to which the West Valley cleanup may reflect, or have implications for, larger cleanup challenges facing DOE and the nation. DOE has almost completed solidifying the high-level wastes at West Valley, but major additional cleanup work remains. These tasks, which could take up to 40 years to complete, include decontaminating and decommissioning structures, remediating soil and groundwater, and removing nuclear wastes stored and buried onsite. The following three factors are hindering DOE's attempts to clean up West Valley: (1) DOE and New York State still have not agreed on the overall future of the site, (2) NRC cleanup standards for West Valley do not exist, and (3) cleanup planning has been limited by uncertainty about where West Valley's nuclear wastes are to go. In addition, DOE's estimates of the total costs and completion date for the West Valley cleanup are uncertain because of a lack of agreement on many strategic issues affecting the site, such as the extent to which the site is to be cleaned up, what it will then look like, how the land is to be used, and what regulatory cleanup standards are to be used. DOE's plan to deal with the underground high-level waste storage tanks at West Valley has potential implications for other DOE disposal efforts.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: No Congressional action was taken directly on this recommendation. However, because of the issues GAO raised to Congress, DOE's Fiscal Year 2002 Appropriations Act requires DOE and the State of New York to resolve their differences. If they did not resolve their differences, funding for fiscal year 2003, would be cut to the minimum level needed to maintain the project in a safe and stable condition.

    Matter: Because DOE and New York State appear to be unable to reach an agreement on their future responsibilities under the West Valley Act, Congress should consider amending the act to clarify their responsibilities--especially their respective stewardship responsibilities for historical radioactive contamination left on-site and their financial liabilities for fees that are to be paid for permanent disposal of high-level waste in an off-site repository.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its response to the final report, DOE agreed with the recommendation. According to the Director of DOE's West Valley Site Office, as of August 3, 2005, DOE is still working to pursue GAO's recommendation. They have completed documentation to show that defense waste was commingled with the nondefense waste so that it could be considered defense waste and sent to the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico legally. They have also completed construction of the Remote Handled Waste Facility, which will be used to process the transuranic waste before it can be shipped to WIPP. However, negotiations with New Mexico have not gone well and the state has indicated that it will not accept the West Valley waste. At present the only recourse appears to be to amend the Land Withdrawal Act, which established WIPP, to allow for the West Valley waste to be disposed of there. According to the Director, such an amendment is unlikely to occur in the near future. Therefore, this recommendation is being closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To help address NRC's and EPA's responsibilities at NRC-licensed sites, the Secretary of Energy should pursue timely removal of the site's transuranic wastes to an interim off-site storage location, or to Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) for permanent disposal, as appropriate, either through administrative action or by seeking an amendment to the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on this report, DOE disagreed with this recommendation, stating that the Department has no disposal obligations until New York State enters into a disposal contract under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. GAO modified the recommendation to recognize DOE's concern. According to the Director of the DOE West Valley Site Office, as of August 3, 2005, DOE and New York still have not reached agreement on their respective stewardship and cost sharing responsibilities. New York State officials continue to pursue legislation that would require DOE to take possession of the waste if it has not completed the cleanup in 20 years. New York State is also drafting a court complaint that states that DOE is not following the Nuclear Waste Policy Act. However, according to the Director, neither of these actions is likely to resolve the issue within the foreseeable future. Therefore, this recommendation is being closed as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To resolve where West Valley's high-level wastes should go, once DOE's and New York State's stewardship and cost-sharing responsibilities have been clarified, and potentially save hundreds of millions of dollars, the Secretary of Energy should pursue the timely removal of onsite vitrified high-level wastes, where feasible, either directly to a permanent repository, or to an interim site until a permanent repository is available.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC met with EPA and New York State officials in July 2001, to discuss issues related to regulatory criteria for the West Valley Site. In its Section 236 response, NRC noted that as a result of these meetings, it and the EPA had gotten closer to agreement on standards for the West Valley Site cleanup. In a January 28, 2002 letter to the Comptroller General, EPA's deputy Chief Financial Officer stated that EPA, NRC, and New York State had met on several occasions and agreed on what criteria should be applied at the site. Specifically, the participants agreed that NRC's decommissioning standards would be protective under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

    Recommendation: To help address NRC's and EPA's regulatory responsibilities at NRC-licensed sites, specifically for West Valley, the Chairman, NRC, and the Administrator, EPA, in coordination with New York State, should agree on how their different regulatory cleanup criteria should apply to the site.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC met with EPA and New York State officials in July 2001, to discuss issues related to regulatory criteria for the West Valley Site. In its Section 236 response, NRC noted that as a result of these meetings, it and the EPA had gotten closer to agreement on standards for the West Valley Site cleanup. In a January 28, 2002 letter to the Comptroller General, EPA's deputy Chief Financial Officer stated that EPA, NRC, and New York State had met on several occasions, and agreed on what criteria should be applied at the site. Specifically, the participants agreed that NRC's decommissioning standards would be protective under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).

    Recommendation: To help address NRC's and EPA's regulatory responsibilities at NRC-licensed sites, specifically for West Valley, the Chairman, NRC, and the Administrator, EPA, in coordination with New York State, should agree on how their different regulatory cleanup criteria should apply to the site.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

 

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