Key Issues > Duplication & Cost Savings > GAO's Action Tracker > DOE's Treatment of Hanford's Low-Activity Waste (2018-17)
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Energy: DOE's Treatment of Hanford's Low-Activity Waste (2018-17)

The Department of Energy may be able to reduce certain risks and save tens of billions of dollars by adopting alternative approaches to treating a portion of its low-activity radioactive waste.

Action:

To enhance the Department of Energy’s (DOE) ability to make risk-based decisions for the treatment of Hanford supplemental low-activity waste, Congress should consider clarifying, in a manner that does not impair the regulatory authorities of the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Washington, DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, in consultation with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, whether portions of the supplemental low-activity waste can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste.

Progress:

No legislative action taken. As of March 2019, Congress had not passed legislation to clarify DOE’s authority at Hanford to determine whether portions of the supplemental low-activity waste (LAW) can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste, as GAO recommended in May 2017. In October 2018, DOE requested public comment on a new interpretation of the statutory term "high level waste," which if the agency adopts it, could facilitate the use of alternate treatment and disposal methods. Nonetheless, providing clear authority to DOE may allow it to use alternative waste treatment approaches to treat Hanford’s supplemental LAW, which could reduce certain risks and save tens of billions of dollars.

Implementing Entity:

Congress

Action:

To help ensure that the Department of Energy’s (DOE) treatment of Hanford's supplemental low-activity waste is risk based and cost-effective, the Secretary of Energy should develop updated information on the effectiveness of treating and disposing of all the different portions of Hanford's supplemental low-activity waste with alternate methods or at alternate disposal sites, and based on this information, identify potential treatment and disposal pathways for different portions of Hanford's supplemental low-activity waste, considering the risks posed by the low-activity waste. In implementing this recommendation, DOE should take into account the results of the analysis required by Section 3134 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.

Progress:

In 2017, DOE’s Office of River Protection contracted with Savannah River National Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center, to evaluate viable treatment options for supplemental low-activity waste (LAW). According to DOE, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a peer review of that laboratory’s evaluation. The laboratory and the National Academies plan to issue a final report in June 2019 that includes information DOE may be able to use in making a decision about treating supplemental LAW.

In addition, in response to GAO’s May 2017 recommendation, DOE said it successfully completed the first phase of a project—called the Test Bed Initiative—in December 2017 to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of 3 gallons of Hanford’s LAW at an alternate disposal site in Andrews, Texas. As of November 2018, DOE was beginning a second phase to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of 2,000 gallons of Hanford’s LAW at the same site in Texas. DOE plans to complete this phase in late fiscal year 2019 and could provide an alternate option for treatment and disposal of Hanford’s supplemental LAW. Moreover, DOE noted that the project has the potential to accelerate waste treatment and save significant costs.

In a conference report for the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill, Congress clarified that DOE may not use appropriations from the Richland or Office of River Protection control points to finance the Test Bed Initiative and mandated that DOE submit a report to Congress on the Initiative’s costs and schedule, among other things. DOE officials told us in November 2018 that DOE has been able to continue with its plans to conduct the demonstration project using Office of Environmental Management research and development funding, and DOE plans to submit the required report to Congress early in 2019. DOE officials added that DOE has not yet determined whether it will conduct another phase of the demonstration project. In October 2018, DOE requested public comment on a new interpretation of the statutory term "high level waste," which if the agency adopts it, could facilitate the use of alternate treatment and disposal methods.

Until DOE develops information that reflects what is now known about the performance of alternate treatment and disposal methods, such as immobilizing tank waste in grout, congressional and agency decision makers will not have access to current scientific information as they decide how to best allocate limited financial resources among many competing needs. Moreover, having updated information on the effectiveness of alternate methods for treating supplemental LAW will help to inform DOE’s discussions with the state of Washington.

Implementing Entity:

Department of Energy

Action:

To help ensure that the Department of Energy’s (DOE) treatment of Hanford's supplemental low-activity waste is risk based and cost effective, the Secretary of Energy should have an independent entity develop updated information on the lifecycle costs of treating and disposing of Hanford's supplemental low-activity waste with alternate methods or at alternate disposal sites. In implementing this recommendation, DOE should take into account the results of the analysis required by Section 3134 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017. 

Progress:

In 2017, DOE’s Office of River Protection contracted with Savannah River National Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center, to evaluate viable treatment options for supplemental low-activity waste (LAW). According to DOE, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine is conducting a peer review of the laboratory’s evaluation. The laboratory and the National Academies plan to issue a final report in June 2019 that includes information DOE may be able to use in making a decision about treating supplemental LAW.

In addition, in response to GAO’s May 2017 recommendation, DOE said it successfully completed the first phase of a project—called the Test Bed Initiative—in December 2017 to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of 3 gallons of Hanford’s LAW at an alternate disposal site in Andrews, Texas. As of November 2018, DOE was beginning a second phase to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of 2,000 gallons of Hanford’s LAW at the same site in Texas. DOE plans to complete this phase in late fiscal year 2019 and could provide an alternate option for treatment and disposal of Hanford’s supplemental LAW. Moreover, DOE noted that the project has the potential to accelerate waste treatment and save significant costs.

In a conference report for the fiscal year 2019 Energy and Water Development appropriations bill, Congress clarified that DOE may not use appropriations from the Richland or Office of River Protection control points to finance the Test Bed Initiative and mandated that DOE submit a report to Congress on the Initiative’s costs and schedule, among other things. DOE officials told us in November 2018 that DOE has been able to continue with its plans to conduct the demonstration project using Office of Environmental Management research and development funding, and DOE plans to submit the required report to Congress early in 2019. DOE officials added that DOE has not yet determined whether it will conduct another phase of the demonstration project. In October 2018, DOE requested public comment on a new interpretation of the statutory term "high level waste," which if the agency adopts it, could facilitate the use of alternate treatment and disposal methods.

Until DOE develops information that reflects what is now known about the costs of alternate treatment and disposal methods, such as immobilizing tank waste in grout, congressional and agency decision makers will not have access to current cost information as they decide how to best allocate limited financial resources among many competing needs.

Implementing Entity:

Department of Energy
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