Low-Level Radioactive Wastes:

Department of Energy Has Opportunities to Reduce Disposal Costs

RCED-00-64: Published: Apr 12, 2000. Publicly Released: May 15, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) management and disposal of its low-level radioactive wastes, focusing on: (1) the factors that influence DOE's decisions about the treatment, storage, and disposal of the wastes; and (2) DOE's costs to treat, store, and dispose of these wastes and the cost-effectiveness of DOE's disposal decisions.

GAO noted that: (1) the limited availability of disposal alternatives is the principal factor influencing DOE's decisions about the treatment, storage, and disposal of its low-level and mixed wastes; (2) four of DOE's six disposal sites are restricted to disposing almost exclusively of their own wastes because of limits on their remaining disposal capacity and unfavorable site conditions; (3) the other two disposal sites have relatively dry climates and enough capacity to dispose of nearly all the low-level and mixed wastes generated at DOE's nuclear facilities nationwide; (4) some waste-generating sites have been able to use a commercial disposal facility, but the only facility that is readily available can accept only wastes that are very lightly contaminated with radioactivity; (5) on February 25, 2000, DOE adopted a new policy that will make the disposal facilities at the Nevada Test Site and the Hanford Site available to all of its waste-generating sites, for both low-level and mixed wastes; (6) however, there are roadblocks to fully implementing this policy--the states that host the disposal facilities may oppose increases in waste disposal at the sites, and DOE needs to obtain environmental permits from these states to dispose of mixed wastes; (7) from fiscal year (FY) 1997 through FY 1999, DOE spent over $700 million to prepare, treat, store, and dispose of its low-level and mixed wastes; (8) treatment and storage costs increased during this 3-year period while waste generators waited for DOE to issue its new policy making the Hanford and Nevada disposal facilities available to them; (9) when DOE fully implements this new policy, waste managers will have at least two disposal options and may be able to lower their waste disposal costs; (10) however, these managers currently lack complete information and guidance from the Department for making cost-effective disposal decisions; (11) the fees charged to waste generators by some DOE disposal facilities are not based on all of the facilities' costs to dispose of wastes; (12) moreover, the disposal facilities do not use uniform cost accounts in developing their respective fees; and (13) DOE has not developed full life-cycle costs for its six waste disposal facilities or established guidance to ensure that its waste managers base their disposal decisions on considerations of cost-effectiveness for DOE's entire program rather than on each site's annual budgetary interests.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its July 2002 report to Congress entitled "The Cost of Waste Disposal: Life Cycle Cost Analysis of Disposal of DOE Low-Level Radioactive Wastes at Federal and Commercial Facilities," DOE's Office of Environmental Management concluded that comparisons of disposal alternatives must consider more than just disposal fees. The report states that DOE disposal sites should be directed to continue calculating the fee as they have done in the past. However, DOE waste generators should evaluate the full "cradle to grave" costs of managing their waste, and base disposal decisions on that full cost. DOE distributed the report to field offices with a memorandum directing those offices to develop the mechanisms necessary to establish that their LLW disposal decisions include the best estimate of full costs and analysis of alternatives. These analyses will be made available to support future reviews of disposal decisions. The report and the directed action are responsive to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and economy of DOE's management and disposal of low-level and mixed wastes, the Secretary of Energy should develop criteria and guidance for DOE's waste managers to use in making decisions on the best available options within DOE and at commercial facilities for treating, storing, and disposing of their wastes. Specifically, the Secretary should, if charging fees is not the preferred policy, provide DOE's waste-generating sites with guidance on how to compare the costs of disposing of their wastes at each available DOE and commercial disposal facility, including consideration of the estimated life-cycle costs of those facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its July 2002 report to Congress entitled "The Cost of Waste Disposal: Life Cycle Cost Analysis of Disposal of DOE Low-Level Radioactive Wastes at Federal and Commercial Facilities," DOE's Office of Environmental Management concluded that comparisons of disposal alternatives must consider more than just disposal fees. The report states that DOE disposal sites should be directed to continue calculating the fee as they have done in the past. However, DOE waste generators should evaluate the full "cradle to grave" costs of managing their waste, and base disposal decisions on that full cost. DOE distributed the report to field offices with a memorandum directing those offices to develop the mechanisms necessary to establish that their LLW disposal decisions include the best estimate of full costs and analysis of alternatives. These analyses will be made available to support future reviews of disposal decisions. The report and the directed action are responsive to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and economy of DOE's management and disposal of low-level and mixed wastes, the Secretary of Energy should develop criteria and guidance for DOE's waste managers to use in making decisions on the best available options within DOE and at commercial facilities for treating, storing, and disposing of their wastes. Specifically, the Secretary should, if charging disposal fees is the preferred policy, provide the operators of disposal facilities with guidance on how to develop and use fees and what those fees should include.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its July 2002 report to Congress entitled "The Cost of Waste Disposal: Life Cycle Cost Analysis of Disposal of DOE Low-Level Radioactive Wastes at Federal and Commercial Facilities," DOE's Office of Environmental Management concluded that comparisons of disposal alternatives must consider more than just disposal fees. The report states that DOE disposal sites should be directed to continue calculating the fee as they have done in the past. However, DOE waste generators should evaluate the full "cradle to grave" costs of managing their waste, and base disposal decisions on that full cost. DOE distributed the report to field offices with a memorandum directing those offices to develop the mechanisms necessary to establish that their LLW disposal decisions include the best estimate of full costs and analysis of alternatives. These analyses will be made available to support future reviews of disposal decisions. The report and the directed action are responsive to GAO's recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and economy of DOE's management and disposal of low-level and mixed wastes, the Secretary of Energy should develop criteria and guidance for DOE's waste managers to use in making decisions on the best available options within DOE and at commercial facilities for treating, storing, and disposing of their wastes. Specifically, the Secretary should decide if the operators of DOE's disposal facilities should charge waste-generating sites fees for disposal services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2002, DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) issued a report to Congress entitled "The Cost of Waste Disposal: Life Cycle Cost Analysis of Disposal of DOE Low-Level Radioactive Wastes at Federal and Commercial Facilities." EM also distributed the report to its field offices and to field offices under the Office of Science and NNSA, within DOE, and required the field offices to develop specific mechanisms necessary to establish that their waste disposal decisions include the best estimate of full "cradle to grave" costs and analysis of alternatives. The EM report and related new requirements are responsive to GAO's recommendation, as the estimated life-cycle costs include costs for closure and long-term stewardship of each facility.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and economy of DOE's management and disposal of low-level and mixed wastes, the Secretary of Energy should develop criteria and guidance for DOE's waste managers to use in making decisions on the best available options within DOE and at commercial facilities for treating, storing, and disposing of their wastes. Specifically, the Secretary should develop reasonable and consistent estimates of the life-cycle costs of each of DOE's disposal facilities, including the costs to close, monitor, and maintain each facility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its July 2002 report to Congress entitled "The Cost of Waste Disposal: Life Cycle Cost Analysis of Disposal of DOE Low-Level Radioactive Wastes at Federal and Commercial Facilities," DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) concluded that commercial facilities offer the lowest disposal cost for some DOE waste. Further, the EM disposal cost study found that both DOE and commercial disposal facilities appear to fill necessary roles in DOE's cleanup of its sites. The report states "In the same manner that DOE's disposal capabilities contribute to competitive pricing from Envirocare, so also should the economies resulting from Envirocare's streamlined waste acceptance and disposal approaches serve to remind DOE of the need to eliminate unnecessary redtape in its procedures and operations." This finding is responsive to GAO's recommendation. The department acted on the report's conclusions and finding by directing that DOE Waste Management Order 435.1 be changed to remove the requirement for an exemption to use non-DOE disposal facilities. Instead, the department directed each Field Office Manger to ensure that disposal decisions are made based on technical acceptability, schedule, and cost benefit.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness, efficiency, and economy of DOE's management and disposal of low-level and mixed wastes, the Secretary of Energy should develop criteria and guidance for DOE's waste managers to use in making decisions on the best available options within DOE and at commercial facilities for treating, storing, and disposing of their wastes. Specifically, the Secretary should assess the effects of using commercial waste disposal facilities on the costs of operating DOE's disposal facilities and develop guidance on how to compare and consider the total costs of using both types of disposal facilities in disposal decision-making.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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