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 2020, Congress had not passed legislation to clarify DOE's authority at Hanford to determine whether portions of the supplemental low-activity waste 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.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 prohibits DOE from spending its fiscal year 2020 funds on applying this high-level radioactive waste interpretation at Hanford, and as a result, DOE officials stated that DOE does not have near-term plans to use this high-level waste interpretation for supplemental low-activity waste at Hanford. Nonetheless, providing clear authority to DOE may allow it to use alternative waste treatment approaches to treat Hanford's supplemental low-activity waste, 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:

As of January 2020, DOE is taking steps to implement GAO’s May 2017 recommendation. 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. According to DOE, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a peer review of that laboratory's evaluation. The laboratory issued a final report in October 2019, and the National Academies issued a final report in late March 2020. According to DOE officials, both reports include information DOE may be able to use in making a decision about treating supplemental low-activity waste. DOE told GAO that they plan to use the studies as scoping documents as they move forward with the decision process. According to DOE officials, as of January 2020, DOE plans to decide how it will treat supplemental low-activity waste by 2026.

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 three gallons of Hanford's low-activity waste 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 low-activity waste at the same site in Texas. However, DOE stopped the demonstration project in spring 2019 when it withdrew its permit application for the Test Bed Initiative. According to DOE officials, this was because the State of Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) proposed that DOE and Ecology engage in negotiations to develop a “holistic and realistic” approach to the retrieval and treatment of Hanford’s tank waste. Congressional appropriations committees directed that DOE could spend up to $10 million to continue the Test Bed Initiative in fiscal year 2020, but DOE officials do not have specific plans for resuming the initiative.

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. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 prohibits DOE from spending its fiscal year 2020 funds on applying this high-level radioactive waste interpretation at Hanford, and as a result, DOE officials stated that DOE does not have near-term plans to use this high-level waste interpretation for supplemental low-activity waste at Hanford.

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 low-activity waste 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:

As of January 2020, DOE is taking steps to implement GAO’s May 2017 recommendation. 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. According to DOE, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a peer review of that laboratory's evaluation. The laboratory issued a final report in October 2019, and the National Academies issued a final report in late March 2020. According to DOE officials, both reports include information DOE may be able to use in making a decision about treating supplemental low-activity waste. DOE told GAO that they plan to use the studies as scoping documents as they move forward with the decision process. According to DOE officials, as of January 2020, DOE plans to decide how it will treat supplemental low-activity waste by 2026.

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 three gallons of Hanford's low-activity waste 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 low-activity waste at the same site in Texas. However, DOE stopped the demonstration project in spring 2019 when it withdrew its permit application for the Test Bed Initiative. According to DOE officials, this was because the State of Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) proposed that DOE and Ecology engage in negotiations to develop a “holistic and realistic” approach to the retrieval and treatment of Hanford’s tank waste. Congressional appropriations committees directed that DOE could spend up to $10 million to continue the Test Bed Initiative in fiscal year 2020, but DOE officials do not have specific plans for resuming the initiative.

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. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 prohibits DOE from spending its fiscal year 2020 funds at Hanford on this high-level radioactive waste interpretation, and as a result, DOE officials stated that DOE does not have near-term plans to use this high-level waste interpretation for supplemental low-activity waste at Hanford.

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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    • Allison Bawden
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