Radioactive Waste:

Answers to Questions Related to the Proposed Ward Valley Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Facility

RCED-98-40R: Published: May 22, 1998. Publicly Released: Jun 23, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the proposed facility for disposing of commercially generated low-level radioactive waste at a site in Ward Valley, California, focusing on: (1) the laws and regulations governing the Department of the Interior's preparation of supplements to environmental impact statements; (2) the laws and regulations on federal land transfers to states; (3) a May 1995 report on Ward Valley issues by the National Academy of Sciences; (4) a former low-level waste disposal facility at Beatty, Nevada; (5) an investigation by Interior's Inspector General into the activities of the U.S. Geological Survey related to the Beatty facility; (6) the plan and design for the proposed Ward Valley facility; and (7) the track record of U.S. Ecology in operating disposal facilities.

GAO noted that: (1) the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, as amended, governs the preparation of environmental impact statements by federal agencies; (2) the final impact statement recognizes the possibility of links between the aquifer beneath Ward Valley and neighboring aquifers but does not assess the potential for the contamination of the Colorado River by this means; (3) the statement did not address the issues of upward migration and release into the atmosphere of soluble radionuclides; (4) in negotiations with California, the Department of the Interior maintained its position that it would transfer the land if the state would accept, as a condition of the transfer, Interior's authority to enforce, in the courts, the state's compliance with the National Academy of Sciences' recommendations; (5) California refused Interior's offer, asserting that the recommendations concerned radiological safety, which is the state's responsibility; (6) at the request of the Secretary of the Interior, a 17-member committee of the National Academy of Sciences studied seven radiological and environmental issues pertaining to the proposed Ward Valley project that had been raised by three U.S. Geological Survey geologists in a report they had prepared as individuals rather than for an official Geological Survey report; (7) the committee generally did not agree with the concerns about the safety of the site raised by the scientists; (8) both California and U.S. Ecology have considered the Beatty disposal site analagous to the Ward Valley site, but there are dissimilarities between the two sites; (9) Interior's Inspector General is investigating three matters related to the Geological Survey's research activities adjacent to the Beatty disposal facility, (10) the Nuclear Engineering Company operated three land disposal facilities: (a) the Sheffield and Maxey Flats sites, neither of which contained radioactive wastes as expected; and (b) the Beatty site, which measured greater than expected levels of tritium and carbon-14; and (11) in the 1995 through 1997 annual reports of American Ecology, independent public accountants concluded that there was substantial doubt about the company's ability to continue as a going concern.

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