Nuclear Waste:

Problems Associated With DOE's Inactive Waste Sites

RCED-88-169: Published: Aug 3, 1988. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 1988.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) management of inactive waste sites at six defense installations, focusing on: (1) DOE identification of the number of sites at the installations; (2) DOE assessment of sites; and (3) environmental problems at the sites.

GAO found that: (1) the installations lacked accurate site inventories, with DOE headquarters citing a total of 605 inactive waste sites, while DOE installation officials cited 1,447; (2) DOE inconsistently assessed the sites' potential hazards, sometimes using the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Hazard Ranking System, variations of that system, or not evaluating the sites at all; (3) the installations used different approaches for applying the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA) to the sites for remediation; (4) each installation had high levels of groundwater contamination with radioactive and hazardous substances, and two installations also had high levels of soil contamination and some surface water contamination; (5) one installation is on the EPA National Priority List (NPL), and the other five have severe enough problems for likely placement on NPL; (6) the installations require a massive cleanup effort, costing as much as $60 billion; and (7) DOE is currently revising DOE Order 5480.14, outlining its program for identifying, assessing, and cleaning up inactive waste sites, to incorporate additional requirements imposed by the 1986 amendments to CERCLA. GAO believes that DOE needs to develop a comprehensive plan, including milestones and cost estimates, to bring DOE facilities into full compliance with environmental laws.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE Order 5400.4, DOE CERCLA Program, formerly 5400.YY, was issued on October 6, 1989. The order established DOE policy of ensuring that corrective actions under RCRA are not inconsistent with the NCP in order for them to satisfy CERCLA requirements.

    Recommendation: To improve DOE oversight of its inactive waste sites nationwide, the Secretary of Energy should develop and prescribe, in cooperation with EPA and the appropriate states, a comprehensive approach to address inactive waste sites which integrates provisions of both CERCLA and RCRA. For those inactive waste sites where CERCLA and RCRA authorities overlap, assessments and remedial action plans should be developed that address the sites as both a CERCLA and RCRA site. In issuing the revised DOE Order 5480.14, DOE should incorporate provisions that specify this comprehensive approach to be followed by DOE installations nationwide.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of March 31, 1989, DOE officially closed this recommendation because it now has procedures in place that ensure that the inventory will be reviewed and updated. A copy of the procedure was provided to GAO.

    Recommendation: To improve DOE oversight of its inactive waste sites nationwide, the Secretary of Energy should update DOE headquarters' inventory to account for all DOE inactive waste sites. In doing so, the inventory should indicate the relative hazards associated with each inactive waste site.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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