Nuclear Material:

DOE Needs to Take Action to Reduce Risks Before Processing Additional Nuclear Material at the Savannah River Site's H-Canyon

GAO-08-840: Published: Jul 25, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 25, 2008.

Additional Materials:

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During the Cold War, the Department of Energy (DOE) produced nuclear materials for nuclear weapons at its Savannah River Site (SRS) by dissolving highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel from reactors in a facility known as H-Canyon. DOE planned to end H-Canyon operations in 2007 but now plans to continue H-Canyon operations until 2019 to process additional nuclear material. GAO was asked to (1) identify the types of nuclear materials DOE will process using H-Canyon and its associated costs of operation, (2) determine whether SRS's radioactive waste storage tanks and associated nuclear waste facilities are capable of handling the additional waste generated by H-Canyon, and (3) describe H-Canyon's compliance with safety and environmental requirements. To conduct its work, GAO reviewed DOE's plans to process nuclear material using H-Canyon and visited SRS to observe the canyon and associated radioactive waste treatment facilities.

DOE plans to process 23 metric tons of highly enriched uranium (HEU)and plutonium using H-Canyon; however, its cost estimate of $4.3 billion to $4.6 billion to process these materials through 2019 does not include all associated costs. First, DOE may identify additional HEU and plutonium as suitable for processing using H-Canyon, which could delay H-Canyon's planned 2019 shutdown and increase operational costs. Second, the estimate does not include the cost of storing and treating the waste generated by H-Canyon operations--approximately $253 million according to DOE. SRS's waste tanks are nearing capacity, and SRS cannot manage the projected waste from planned H-Canyon operations without critical enhancements. DOE is developing new technologies and building new facilities to meet these challenges. The most critical of these facilities--the Salt Waste Processing Facility--was originally scheduled to begin operating in 2009 but has been delayed twice and is now not projected to begin operations until as late as November 2013. If the facility is not completed on schedule, SRS will continue to face waste storage capacity challenges, which could affect the H-Canyon operating schedule. In addition, several potential events could significantly impede waste processing at SRS. For example, storage capacity could be reduced if critical equipment that reduces the amount of water volume in waste tanks malfunctions or if tank leaks develop. DOE has determined that H-Canyon is operating safely, and with minimal environmental impact, and DOE expects it will continue to do so in the future. However, DOE must complete further safety and environmental analyses prior to processing additional nuclear material using H-Canyon. Some of these analyses have been delayed by as much as 2 years because SRS lacks sufficient technical staff to conduct them. If these delays persist, the processing of nuclear material using H-Canyon could be delayed.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE is effectively able to use H-Canyon's capabilities to process and dispose of nuclear material, the Secretary of Energy should ensure that the efforts of the National Nuclear Security Administration and other offices within DOE to identify additional HEU, plutonium, and other nuclear materials that may be suitable for processing using H-Canyon are coordinated in order to make sure that these materials are included in SRS's processing plans and that any additional material added does not unduly delay H-Canyon's planned 2019 shutdown.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has taken actions to address this recommendation. Specifically, DOE is now working closely with NNSA's Office of Nuclear Material Integration to ensure that future decisions to process additional materials at H-Canyon are coordinated to minimize the impact to the canyon's planned shutdown.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE is effectively able to use H-Canyon's capabilities to process and dispose of nuclear material, the Secretary of Energy should develop a comprehensive cost estimate for continuing to operate H-Canyon that includes all waste treatment costs and contingency costs for any additional nuclear materials that will be included in the processing plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE written comments to the report stated that it would formally document the H-Canyon cost estimate that includes the resultant impact of planned H-Canyon operations to the Savannah River Site (SRS) liquid waste system. In August 2008, DOE produced a new cost estimate for continuing to operate H-Canyon that includes all waste treatment costs for nuclear materials that will be included in the processing plans.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE is effectively able to use H-Canyon's capabilities to process and dispose of nuclear material, the Secretary of Energy should direct SRS to develop a plan to ensure that sufficient technical staff are available to complete the required safety analyses in a timely manner so that H-Canyon operations can proceed on schedule.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has directed the contractor operating the Savannah River Site (SRS) to complete the required safety analyses on time to support scheduled H-Canyon operations and the department has monitored the contractor's progress.

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