Nuclear Waste:

Pretreatment Modifications at DOE Hanford's B Plant Should Be Stopped

RCED-91-165: Published: Jun 12, 1991. Publicly Released: Jul 17, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) plans to modify its Hanford Site B Plant in Washington to pretreat mixed high-level radioactive waste before the vitrification process to turn it into glass.

GAO found that: (1) although DOE was aware that the plant had not met specific federal or DOE regulations since 1987, it failed to timely discuss the compliance problems with Washington; (2) although the plant did not comply with regulatory requirements, DOE considered modification less costly than construction of a new facility; (3) despite a March 1991 recommendation by Washington that DOE abandon plans to establish the plant as a pretreatment facility, DOE continued to modify B Plant for that purpose; (4) the process DOE was developing for pretreating approximately 75 percent of its high-level waste could cause extensive corrosion to the plant's embedded waste pipes; (5) DOE was reevaluating B Plant's viability as a pretreatment facility, alternative pretreatment processing options, and alternative pretreatment facilities; (6) a DOE assessment of vitrification process risks suggested that B Plant would not meet federal environmental requirements; (7) DOE believed that its noncompliance was due to the absence of double containment for pipes, tanks, and other processing facilities; and (8) even though DOE halted modification projects totalling more than $400 million, it continued pretreatment projects totalling about $43 million.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE decided against using B Plant as a pretreatment facility. Therefore, DOE has cancelled 26 of the 33 projects designed to upgrade the plant. Those portions of the remaining 7 projects that were associated with the pretreatment operations in B Plant were removed from the projects.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Operations Office to cancel all projects designed primarily to upgrade B Plant as a pretreatment facility and shift the funds for those projects to developing an acceptable alternative.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has reassessed the authorized purpose of the projects funded for the B Plant and has cancelled all projects not needed for the waste encapsulation and storage facility.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Operations Office to ensure that only projects designed to support waste encapsulation and storage facility operations are continued.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE undertook a 15-month reevaluation of its high-level waste disposal program in December 1992. In March 1993 the reevaluation of the program, including those aspects associated with environmental compliance, was completed. DOE has been discussing its new approach with state regulators.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Operations Office to develop an approach for making decisions on environmental projects that: (1) takes into account all available information; (2) is premised on full compliance with environmental regulations; and (3) requires open communication with the appropriate regulators.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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