Nuclear Waste:

DOE's Repository Site Investigations, a Long and Difficult Task

RCED-92-73: Published: May 27, 1992. Publicly Released: May 27, 1992.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) civilian radioactive waste management program, focusing on: (1) DOE efforts to investigate the Yucca Mountain, Nevada, site; (2) DOE efforts to ensure the early identification, primarily through surface-based tests, of any conditions that could disqualify the site; and (3) the effects of delays in DOE obtaining environmental permits from Nevada.

GAO found that: (1) between fiscal years 1989 and 1991, DOE spent about $523 million on the Yucca Mountain project; (2) DOE delay in obtaining a permit did not significantly affect program progress because DOE needed to develop quality assurance programs that were acceptable to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), finish developing technology for dry drilling, and redesign the exploratory studies facility before it could begin to comprehensively implement its December 1988 site characterization plan; (3) DOE has not yet developed a cohesive approach to identifying conditions that, if present, could disqualify the site for a repository; (4) the first DOE effort to identify high-priority tests and determine how to evaluate site conditions focused primarily on potential adverse site conditions included in NRC regulations but, after a year, DOE decided to use its own guidelines to judge site suitability; (5) in March 1991, DOE issued a report ranking broad issues to be studied, but decided to develop a new ranking method; (6) DOE has not obtained public comment on proposed approaches for establishing testing priorities and evaluating site suitability; (7) problems in obtaining the environmental permits necessary to conduct work at the Yucca Mountain site have prevented DOE in the last 4 years from conducting site activities necessary for site characterization; (8) DOE applied for three permits needed to resume investigations, but Nevada delayed acting on the applications due to pending litigation which was ultimately resolved in favor of DOE; and (9) since continuing difficulties in obtaining permits could significantly delay program completion, DOE has proposed legislation that takes away Nevada's permit-processing responsibility.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE stated that it had already established and implemented a policy for obtaining comments on its approach to site characterization. Therefore, DOE does not plan to take additional action on this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help DOE build public trust in its civilian nuclear waste management program through the dissemination of information, the Secretary of Energy should, in addition to obtaining comments from the public, NRC, and others on the DOE methodology for evaluating Yucca Mountain, obtain comments on the proposed DOE approach for site characterization, including its plans for: (1) prioritizing site characterization tests; (2) funding such tests; and (3) scheduling surface-based and underground tests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE has announced a change in its approach to evaluating the Yucca Mountain site. It intends to identify and prioritize the site investigation work that it believes is essential to making decisions on the suitability of the site for a repository and obtaining a construction authorization from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and defer other investigation work to the "performance confirmation period" during construction and operation of the repository. In making decisions on what investigation work must be done now and what can be deferred, DOE says it will consult with the Commission and the public.

    Recommendation: To help avoid, or possibly withstand, a legal challenge, the Secretary of Energy should, before officially adopting the site evaluation method, obtain an opinion from the DOE Office of the General Counsel that the methodology legally conforms to DOE siting guidelines.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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