Department of Energy:

Information on the Tritium Leak and Contractor Dismissal at the Brookhaven National Laboratory

RCED-98-26: Published: Nov 4, 1997. Publicly Released: Nov 13, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the events surrounding the leak of the radioactive element tritium from a research reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and the resulting termination of Associated Universities, Inc., as the laboratory's contractor.

GAO noted that: (1) because Brookhaven employees did not aggressively monitor its reactor's spent-fuel pool for leaks, years passed before tritium contamination was discovered in the aquifer near the spent-fuel pool; (2) reliance on incomplete tests of the water level in the spent-fuel pool and on sample data from monitoring wells scattered about the site led Brookhaven and Department of Energy (DOE) officials to give low priority to a potential tritium leak; (3) even after laboratory and DOE staff agreed with Suffolk County regulatory officials to install monitoring wells near the reactor in 1994, Brookhaven officials postponed their installation in favor of environmental, safety, and health activities they considered more important; (4) once the wells were installed and the high levels of tritium were discovered, the laboratory reported that the spent-fuel pool could have been leaking for as long as 12 years; (5) although the tritium poses little threat to the public, the delay in installing the monitoring wells raised serious concerns in the Long Island community about: (a) the laboratory's ability to take seriously its responsibilities for environment and for human health and safety; and (b) DOE's competence as an overseer of the laboratory's activities; (6) the responsibility for failing to discover Brookhaven's tritium leak has been acknowledged by laboratory managers, and DOE admits it failed to properly oversee the laboratory's operations; (7) DOE's on-site oversight office, the Brookhaven Group, was directly responsible for Brookhaven's performance, but it failed to hold the laboratory accountable for meeting all of its regulatory commitments, especially its agreement to install monitoring wells; (8) senior DOE leadership also shares responsibility because they failed to put in place an effective system that encourages all parts of DOE to work together to ensure that contractors meet their responsibilities for environmental, safety and health issues; (9) DOE's latest strategic plan, submitted in support of the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, offers an opportunity to focus attention on the need to address DOE's management structure and accountability problems from a strategic perspective; and (10) the Secretary of Energy's decision to terminate Associated Universities' 50 years as the laboratory's contractor was based, according to DOE's official statements, on the laboratory's loss of the public's trust and DOE's own investigation, which concluded that the laboratory had not kept pace with contemporary expectations for the protection of the environment and human health and safety.

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