Nuclear Waste:

Management and Technical Problems Continue to Delay Characterizing Hanford's Tank Waste

RCED-96-56: Published: Jan 26, 1996. Publicly Released: Jan 26, 1996.

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GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) progress in characterizing its tank waste at its Hanford site, focusing on: (1) whether it has met its characterization deadlines; (2) the impediments to meeting characterization deadlines; and (3) the impact that continued delays have on the characterization process.

GAO found that: (1) over the past 10 years, DOE has spent over $260 million and made little definitive progress in characterizing the tank wastes at Hanford; (2) DOE has not been able to meet characterization deadlines for the 54 tanks with known safety problems; (3) the DOE contractor has been unable to characterize any of the 177 tanks as ready for remediation; (4) DOE and its contractor have had problems performing reliable top-to-bottom samples, gathering sampling data, reconciling tank contents, and developing an effective tank characterization management system; (5) disagreement exists as to what kind and how much information is needed to reliably predict actual waste quantities and build appropriate treatment facilities; (6) Congress, DOE, and private contractors need better sampling and characterization information to reliably predict total program costs; and (7) these uncertainties could undermine the savings DOE expects to realize by privatizing the tank waste remediation program.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that Hanford's tank waste characterization program will provide a sound foundation for designing and building waste treatment facilities, the Secretary of Energy should commission an independent review of the characterization program, using an organization such as the National Academy of Sciences, to resolve questions about the technical adequacy of Hanford's characterization strategy. The review should focus on determining how much and what kind of information is sufficient to reliably characterize the tank wastes and predict the quantities and conditions of the waste constituents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE officials agreed with the value of having an outside technical review of the characterization program. They said they implemented this recommendation by directing the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to study program uncertainties related to Hanford tank wastes. The PNNL completed its study, entitled, "A Risk-Based Focused Decision-Management Approach for Justifying Characterization of Hanford Tank Waste," in April 1997. However, after reviewing PNNL's study, GAO found that it was not fully responsive to the recommendation. The study focuses on resolving issues related to tank safety. It does not evaluate how much and what kind of information is sufficient to reliably characterize the tank wastes and predict the quantities and conditions of waste constituents so that adequate treatment facilities could be designed and built, as GAO recommended.

    Recommendation: To ensure that Hanford's tank waste characterization program will provide a sound foundation for designing and building waste treatment facilities, the Secretary of Energy should commission an independent review of the characterization program, using an organization such as the National Academy of Sciences, to resolve questions about the technical adequacy of Hanford's characterization strategy. The review should focus on determining the amount and quality of characterization information needed for DOE to proceed with the design and construction of waste treatment facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE officials agreed with the value of having an outside technical review of the characterization program. They said they implemented this recommendation by directing the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to study program uncertainties related to Hanford tank wastes. The PNNL completed its study, entitled, "A Risk-Based Focused Decision-Management Approach for Justifying Characterization of Hanford Tank Waste," in April 1997. However, after reviewing PNNL's study, GAO found that it was not fully responsive to the recommendation. The study focuses on resolving issues related to tank safety. It does not evaluate how much and what kind of information is sufficient to reliably characterize the tank wastes and predict the quantities and conditions of waste constituents so that adequate treatment facilities could be designed and built, as GAO recommended.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funds for the overall tank waste remediation program are spent as wisely as possible, the Secretary of Energy should defer funding the construction of pretreatment and treatment facilities until the technical adequacy of the characterization program has been confirmed or established.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE does not plan to defer funding the construction of pretreatment and treatment facilities until the technical adequacy of the characterization program has been confirmed. Instead, DOE has implemented the Tank Waste Remediation System (TWRS) privatization program. Because this program will be implemented in two phases, DOE officials believe uncertainties about tank waste constituents will be resolved as the program evolves. In addition, DOE believes it has shifted the risk of treatment facility design and construction to private companies that will fund the construction and operation of pilot-scale facilities during Phase I, scheduled to begin in fiscal year 1996, and full-scale facilities during Phase II, scheduled to begin in 2004.

    Recommendation: To ensure that funds for the overall tank waste remediation program are spent as wisely as possible, the Secretary of Energy should defer funding the construction of pretreatment and treatment facilities until sufficient waste characterization information is available to reliably define the requirements of those facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE does not plan to defer funding the construction of pretreatment and treatment facilities until sufficient waste characterization information is available to reliably define the requirements of those facilities. DOE implemented the TWRS privatization program. Because this program will be implemented in two phases, DOE officials believe that adequate information will become available when it is needed to support the design and construction of pretreatment and treatment facilities.

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