Uranium Mill Tailings:

Cleanup Continues, but Future Costs Are Uncertain

RCED-96-37: Published: Dec 15, 1995. Publicly Released: Dec 15, 1995.

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Pursuant to a legislative requirement, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) program for cleaning up uranium mill tailings, focusing on: (1) the status and cost of DOE surface and groundwater cleanups; and (2) factors that could affect the federal government's costs and liabilities in the future.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE intends to complete the cleanup of surface and groundwater contamination sites by 2014, at a cost of more than $2.4 billion; (2) out of 24 sites, surface cleanup is complete at 15, under way at 7, and idle at 2; (3) surface cleanup costs total around $2 billion to date and may be completed in 1998 at an additional cost of $300 million; (4) DOE postponed its groundwater cleanup until 1991 because of its focus on surface cleanup and a delay in the Environmental Protection Agency's final groundwater standards; (5) DOE has not reached an agreement with any of the affected states or tribes to develop cleanup strategies or financial support; (6) DOE will need another $147 million to clean up the affected groundwater sites; (7) the costs and completion dates of the cleanups depend on whether DOE keeps a disposal site open to dispose of future unearthed tailings and whether states contribute 10 percent of the groundwater cleanup expenses; and (8) the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not updated the minimum charge for owners of Title II sites to reflect the cost of basic surveillance and maintenance.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Public Law 104-259 states that "the Secretary may continue operation of the disposal site in Mesa County, Colorado (known as the Cheney disposal cell) for receiving and disposing of residual radioactive material from processing sites and of byproduct material from property in the vicinity of the uranium milling site located in Monticello, Utah, until the Cheney disposal cell has been filled to the capacity for which it was designed, or September 30, 2023, whichever comes first."

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider authorizing DOE to keep a portion of the Cheney disposal cell open to dispose of tailings that are unearthed in the future in the Grand Junction, Colorado, area.

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: P.L. 104-259 did not address this issue. According to DOE, this issue is no longer a concern since it appears that only active remediation sites will require a cost sharing arrangement. The remaining sites' costs are related to site assessment and evaluation costs which are paid by DOE--following DOE's practices used for surface cleanup. In cases where active ground remediation is planned for aquifers located for Indian reservations, the federal government will pay the cost of remediation, because by law, Indian tribes are not required to cost share. DOE no longer thinks that this is an issue as long as the cleanup strategies remain as planned.

    Matter: To resolve the issue of DOE lack of authority to complete the groundwater cleanup if the states do not contribute their 10-percent share of costs, Congress may wish to consider whether and under what circumstances DOE can complete the cleanup of the sites when the states do not provide financial support.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC and DOE report that they have worked together to develop accurate estimates of long-term maintenance and monitoring costs. Both agencies believe that the minimum one-time fee for basic surveillance will not require updating. However, they recognize that the one time basic charge will vary by site as Title II sites are terminated.

    Recommendation: To provide a realistic indication of the future costs for long-term surveillance and maintenance of the Title II sites, the Commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should direct its staff to consult with DOE to develop an accurate estimate of these costs and what they entail, and use that information to update the minimum one-time charge for basic surveillance.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NRC and DOE have worked together to develop procedures and cost estimates for the one-time charge for basic surveillance. NRC and DOE have agreed to work together to determine the need for routine maintenance, which will be made on a site-by-site basis as remediation is completed.

    Recommendation: To provide a realistic indication of the future costs for long-term surveillance and maintenance of the Title II sites, the Commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission should direct its staff to consult with DOE to develop an accurate estimate of these costs and what they entail, and use that information to determine if routine maintenance will be required at each site, and, if so, incorporate those costs into the minimum charge.

    Agency Affected: Nuclear Regulatory Commission

 

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