Nuclear Waste:

Process to Remove Radioactive Waste From Savannah River Tanks Fails to Work

RCED-99-69: Published: Apr 30, 1999. Publicly Released: Jun 1, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to clean up nuclear waste at DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina, focusing on: (1) the factors causing the project's delays and cost growth; (2) the effect of the in-tank precipitation process project's suspension on the Savannah River Site's cleanup plans and costs; and (3) DOE's plans for developing an alternative technology for separating high-level waste from the liquid.

GAO noted that: (1) a number of factors combined to cause DOE and Westinghouse Savannah River Corporation to spend almost a half billion dollars and to take about a decade to decide that the in-tank precipitation process would not work safely and efficiently as designed; (2) the most serious factors were the ineffectiveness of the contractor's management and of the Department's oversight of the project; (3) DOE and the contractor encountered delays in starting up the in-tank precipitation facility because they began construction before the design of the process was completed; (4) because DOE funded the project with operating funds, rather than with construction funds, the project was less visible to congressional oversight; (5) there was also an inadequate understanding by DOE and the contractor of the in-tank precipitation process and the cause of the benzene generation; (6) the failure of the in-tank precipitation process to operate as originally planned will delay the cleanup of high-level waste at the Savannah River Site and increase costs; (7) the facility was planned to begin operating in 1988, and now, DOE estimates that an alternative process may not be available until as late as 2007 and could cost from about $2.3 billion to $3.5 billion over its lifetime; (8) as a result, the site has had to modify its plans for processing waste; (9) depending on the alternative process selected, Westinghouse estimated that it could be as late as 2025 before the waste tanks are empty; (10) thus, DOE risks missing the dates in its waste removal plan and schedule agreement with South Carolina and the Environmental Protection Agency to close certain high-level waste tanks by no later than 2022; (11) Westinghouse estimated that it could cost over $75 billion to construct and operate the facilities necessary to clean up the high-level waste if an alternative process is not developed for separating the waste in the tanks; (12) DOE's plans for selecting an alternative process are still being formulated; (13) soon after the in-tank precipitation project was suspended in 1998, Westinghouse began evaluating 142 technologies to replace the process and pared them down to 4 final alternative technologies; (14) Westinghouse recommended to DOE that the small tank precipitation process be selected; and (15) DOE has begun additional research and testing to obtain the information needed to select the preferred alternative by the end of fiscal year 1999.

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