Nuclear Waste:

Storage Issues at DOE's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico

RCED-90-1: Published: Dec 8, 1989. Publicly Released: Jan 12, 1990.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) 5-year program for demonstrating its Waste Isolation Pilot Plant's (WIPP) capacity for safe disposal of transuranic (TRU) wastes produced by DOE atomic energy defense activities.

GAO found that: (1) DOE established the 5-year test program to help determine WIPP compliance with 1985 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards by conducting experiments involving brine seepage, gas generation, and other technical issues; (2) pursuant to a court order, EPA planned to issue revised standards in 1991; (3) DOE also planned to demonstrate safe waste handling, transport, and storage operations by storing 18,300 drums over 3 years, beginning in 1990; (4) DOE would have to remove or rehandle wastes it stored under the demonstration program if it determined that WIPP did not meet compliance standards; (5) the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that DOE address such issues as waste disposal contingencies, merits of early storage, noncompliance risks, and technical justification for experiments, before starting the demonstration program; (6) early waste storage at WIPP would enable DOE to begin removing wastes from its aging defense facilities, most of which had limited storage space; (7) two states opposed additional storage at their defense facilities and sought prompt removal of existing wastes; (8) although DOE had not issued its test plan in final form, NAS agreed that the proposed experiments on gas generation should begin without delay; and (9) DOE was seeking legislation to permanently withdraw the WIPP site from public use and authorize waste storage.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress passed land withdrawal legislation for the WIPP facility.

    Matter: Congress may wish to include a provision in land withdrawal legislation that would specify the amount of TRU wastes DOE can store in WIPP before determining that the facility complies with EPA disposal standards.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress passed land withdrawal legislation for the WIPP facility.

    Matter: If DOE adopts the GAO recommendations, Congress should consider the material that DOE provides in deciding on the future of WIPP. If DOE does not accept the recommendations, Congress may wish to require DOE to provide it with such material.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress passed land withdrawal legislation for the WIPP facility.

    Matter: Congress may wish to make permanent land withdrawal conditional upon a positive determination of compliance.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress passed relevant land withdrawal legislation.

    Recommendation: To ensure that Congress has relevant information to decide on the DOE request for authority to store TRU wastes in WIPP for demonstration purposes, the Secretary of Energy should analyze and report to Congress on options for continued temporary storage of TRU waste at other DOE defense facilities while DOE is completing its assessment of WIPP compliance with EPA standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In late 1992, Congress passed land withdrawal legislation. A provision requiring DOE to develop specific contingency plans for disposition of TRU waste in the event that WIPP does not meet EPA disposal standards was included.

    Recommendation: To ensure that Congress has relevant information to decide on the DOE request for authority to store TRU wastes in WIPP for demonstration purposes, the Secretary of Energy should analyze and report to Congress on contingency plans for the disposition of any TRU waste stored in WIPP in the event that DOE eventually determines that the facility, as currently designed, does not meet EPA disposal standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The agency agreed with this recommendation. It added that its final test plan of April 1990 reflects the fact that external reviewers generally supported tests with limited amounts of waste at WIPP. The justification for storing TRU waste in WIPP contained in the plan is consistent with external review comments.

    Recommendation: To ensure that Congress has relevant information to decide on the DOE request for authority to store TRU wastes in WIPP for demonstration purposes, the Secretary of Energy should analyze and report to Congress on the technical justification for storing TRU wastes in WIPP, and the quantity of such wastes, in advance of determining if the facility can be used as a repository.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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