Nuclear Regulation:

NRC's Decommissioning Procedures and Criteria Need to Be Strengthened

RCED-89-119: Published: May 26, 1989. Publicly Released: Aug 3, 1989.

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In response to a congressional request, GAO assessed Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) actions to ensure that operators of fuel-cycle facilities provide for eventual decommissioning, including: (1) the actions that licensees take to comply with NRC residual radiation guidelines; and (2) NRC assessments of facilities prior to terminating licenses.

GAO found that: (1) NRC fully or partially released two sites for unrestricted use where radioactive contamination was higher than its guidelines allowed; (2) it could not determine whether similar situations occurred at six other sites because licensee cleanup information was sometimes incomplete, ambiguous, or nonexistent, and NRC did not always have information about licensee decontamination activities; (3) NRC regulations did not specify how long either it or licensees should retain decontamination information; (4) licensees did not initially decontaminate their facilities to meet NRC guidelines; (5) although NRC required licensees to decontaminate facilities below its guidelines, 11 of 19 decommissioning plans would not meet that requirement; (6) although NRC required licensees to retain records on the radioactive wastes they buried, five of the eight cases reviewed involved buried waste on-site, but four of the licensees did not keep or complete disposal data; (7) NRC did not require licensees to monitor groundwater or soil contamination from buried waste, but five licensees found groundwater contaminated with radioactive substances at levels higher than drinking water standards allowed; and (8) although NRC believes that it can require former licensees to conduct additional cleanup activities, it does not have regulations to address the actions it can take. GAO also found that: (1) because the Environmental Protection Agency was responsible for developing residual radiation standards, but did not expect to finalize them until 1992, NRC used guidelines it developed to determine whether to terminate a license; and (2) a professional group that also developed residual radiation standards proposed some levels 3 to 50 times higher and some levels 3 to 5 times lower than NRC guidelines.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 1990, NRC developed a plan to ensure proper presentation and permanent retention of decommissioning records of significant historical value. NRC published a proposed rule for comment in the Federal Register in October 1991. The final rule was approved by the Commission and published in the Federal Register on July 26, 1993.

    Recommendation: To enhance NRC regulatory oversight of nuclear facilities' decommissioning efforts, the Chairman, NRC, should ensure that NRC obtains and keeps for more than 10 years decommissioning information, such as licensee radiological surveys and certification of materials disposed, NRC or other organizations' confirmatory surveys, and specifics on land, buildings, and equipment that were contaminated over the life of the license.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC agrees with the recommendation but plans to take no actions to implement it. NRC staff say that the agency already ensures that licensees appropriately monitor buried waste sites, and disposals are sufficiently restricted so that long-term monitoring will not be necessary to protect the public or environment.

    Recommendation: To enhance NRC regulatory oversight of nuclear facilities' decommissioning efforts, the Chairman, NRC, should ensure that licensees appropriately monitor buried waste sites to determine the extent of environmental contamination.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On March 19, 1991, NRC directed its staff to prepare a proposed rule on decommissioning criteria. The staff has considered the residual radiation standards proposed by the Health Physics Society Standards Committee. On April 15, 1992, NRC approved a plan to conduct a rulemaking on radiological criteria for decommissioning. NRC published, on August 22, 1994, in the Federal Register, a proposed rule. NRC staff estimates publishing a final rule around August 1995.

    Recommendation: To enhance NRC regulatory oversight of nuclear facilities' decommissioning efforts, the Chairman, NRC, should determine if NRC residual radiation criteria should be revised on the basis of the standards proposed by the Health Physics Society Standards Committee.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 1998, NRC completed the last of three actions to implement this recommendation. First, in June 1992, NRC issued a regulatory guide on acceptable radiological surveys in support of license termination. Second, NRC cooperated with EPA, DOE, and DOD in developing a manual that uses a common survey method to determine residual radioactive contamination. A draft of the manual was issued for comment in 1996 and the final manual issued in December 1997. Third, in July 1997, NRC published a final rule establishing radiological criteria for license termination.

    Recommendation: To enhance NRC regulatory oversight of nuclear facilities' decommissioning efforts, the Chairman, NRC, should ensure that the licensees decontaminate their facilities in accordance with NRC guidelines before NRC fully or partially releases a site for unrestricted use.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC plans to develop regulations to improve licensees' recordkeeping. NRC published a proposed rulemaking for comment regarding this matter in the Federal Register in October 1991. The final regulations were published in the Federal Register on July 26, 1993.

    Recommendation: To enhance NRC regulatory oversight of nuclear facilities' decommissioning efforts, the Chairman, NRC, should require licensees to specifically list in one document all land, buildings, and equipment involved with their licensed operations.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: New regulations became effective on September 16, 1991, that address NRC authority to require additional cleanup after a license is terminated. NRC is also reviewing terminated licenses to determine whether all nuclear material and waste were safely disposed. This effort will be ongoing for many years and NRC plans to take appropriate actions to ensure that contaminated sites are cleaned up.

    Recommendation: Since NRC believes that it has authority to require additional cleanup activities after terminating a license and to ensure that it has a mechanism to enforce orders requiring such activities, the Chairman, NRC, should act expeditiously to issue regulations governing such actions. In the interim, the Chairman should also ensure that all contamination at a site has been cleaned up so that it is below the levels that NRC guidelines allow before releasing all or part of a site for unrestricted use.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

 

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