Nuclear Waste:

Understanding of Waste Migration at Hanford is Inadequate for Key Decisions

RCED-98-80: Published: Mar 13, 1998. Publicly Released: Mar 23, 1998.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Robin M. Nazzaro
(202) 512-6246
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to develop an understanding of conditions in the vadose zone, focusing on: (1) the adequacy of DOE's current understanding of the extent to which waste materials are moving through the vadose zone; and (2) DOE's current strategy for investigating vadose zone conditions.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE's own reviews conclude what outside experts have been saying for some time; (2) DOE's understanding of how wastes move through the vadose zone to the groundwater is inadequate to make key technical decisions on how to clean up the wastes at the Hanford Site in an environmentally sound and cost-effective manner; (3) for many years, DOE assumed that wastes would move slowly, if at all, through the vadose zone; (4) therefore, DOE never issued a comprehensive plan to assess vadose zone conditions and funded few studies of the vadose zone; (5) outside experts have pointed out, however, that DOE cannot credibly estimate the site's long-term risk to the public or select the most efficient cleanup strategies unless it understands conditions in the vadose zone; (6) for example, the lack of knowledge about the vadose zone has major implications for how to go about retrieving the remaining wastes from tanks that have leaked or are leaking because at least one retrieval option would cause more liquid wastes to leak into the ground; (7) DOE has no strategy in place for investigating the vadose zone; (8) DOE assigned low funding priority to most proposed studies of it, responded slowly to experts' recommendations for improving ongoing studies, did not integrate the information needs of the three organizational units responsible for cleanup activities, and does not know what information is needed to make key cleanup decisions; and (9) with the emerging evidence of waste migration from leaking tanks to the groundwater, DOE has begun to develop a strategy to investigate the vadose zone.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 1998, DOE issued a plan for integrated study of vadose and groundwater zone issues. The plan establishes a site-wide management function responsible for identifying and coordinating activities that pose a real or potential impact to the Hanford Site's soil and groundwater and to the Columbia River. DOE then identified data gaps, defined needs, goals, objectives, and near- and long-term priorities, and prepared a cohesive program that reflects this information. Finally, DOE has increased budgets for program activities to implement detailed work plans. For example, the budget for the three areas (research, site investigation, and site modeling) discussed in the report has reached $32 million in fiscal year 2000, or almost double the funds for the previous year.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should develop a comprehensive vadose zone strategy for the Hanford Site that addresses cleaning up the high-level waste tank farms and the cribs, ponds, trenches, and other waste sites. The strategy should address the importance of understanding conditions in the vadose zone to ongoing cleanup activities and future decisions on cleaning up the Hanford Site. Examples of such activities and future decisions include, but are not limited to: (1) covering tank farms with gravel; (2) slowing the removal of wastes from single-shell tanks; and (3) deciding whether to retrieve wastes from leaking single-shell tanks and if so, how.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 1998, DOE issued a three-phase plan for integrated study of vadose and groundwater zone issues. The primary goal of the plan, which represents completion of the first phase, established a site-wide management function responsible for identifying and coordinating activities that pose a real or potential impact to the Hanford Site's soil and groundwater and to the Columbia River. To define leadership roles, DOE created the Integration Project, which reports to DOE-Richland's Planning and Integration Office. Contractor support is now led by Bechtel Hanford with support from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and with support from contractors working in the tank farms and site-wide. During fiscal year 1999, DOE, the State of Washington, and the Environmental Protection Agency agreed to eight draft regulatory milestones for tank farm vadose zone activities. Program plans have been issued for the tank farms.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should develop a comprehensive vadose zone strategy for the Hanford site that addresses cleaning up the high-level waste tank farms and the cribs, ponds, trenches, and other waste sites. The strategy should define leadership roles within DOE and its contractors. The overall leadership for this program should be clearly defined, with measurable performance goals and accountability for meeting the goals established at the outset.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE issued a three-phase plan for integrated study of vadose and groundwater zone issues. The primary goal of the plan, which represents completion of the first phase, was to establish a site-wide management function responsible for identifying and coordinating activities that pose a real or potential impact to the Hanford Site's soil and groundwater and to the Columbia River. To ensure credibility of the effort, DOE conducted a series of meetings with representatives of national laboratories, universities, regulators, Tribal Nations, and stakeholders. In addition, public progress meetings are held twice a month and DOE has established focused working groups to address critical project issues, such as developing a regulatory path forward. Independent technical review is also provided by (1) a panel of eight outsiders with expertise in environmental management, geophysics, ecological health, radiochemistry, and hydrology, and (2) the National Academy of Sciences.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should develop a comprehensive vadose zone strategy for the Hanford Site that addresses cleaning up the high-level waste tank farms and the cribs, ponds, trenches, and other waste sites. The strategy should include identifying steps to ensure the credibility of the process and the information that is collected, such as review by stakeholders and subject matter experts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has developed a varying approach to tank retrieval to avoid further contamination of the vadose zone in its estimated $2.5 billion effort to retrieve the waste and close the 149 single shell tanks at the Hanford site. DOE will rely on pressurized water to mobilize and retrieve waste from the tanks that do not have leaks. For the 67 tanks that DOE assumes have leaked, DOE developed a mobile retrieval system, a largely mechanical approach to waste retrieval. DOE plans to deploy the retrieval system in the fall of 2003. In addition, DOE is also examining evidence on the 67 leaking tanks to determine whether the tanks require the use of the mobile retrieval system, or whether the location or characteristics of the leak will still allow use of pressurized water.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should reevaluate, as soon as better information is available on the behavior of wastes in the vadose zone, DOE's proposed strategy of removing additional wastes from single-shell tank by injecting pressurized water into the tanks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Sep 14, 2016

Sep 8, 2016

Aug 11, 2016

Aug 9, 2016

Aug 4, 2016

Jul 15, 2016

Jul 14, 2016

Jun 20, 2016

Mar 3, 2016

Looking for more? Browse all our products here