The Uranium Mill Tailings Cleanup:

Federal Leadership at Last?

EMD-78-90: Published: Jun 20, 1978. Publicly Released: Jun 20, 1978.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) proposed legislation that would allow it to enter into cooperative agreements with various states to clean up residual radioactive materials, called uranium mill tailings, at 22 inactive uranium mills. About 25 million tons of mill tailings have accumulated at these sites since the 1940's. Under the proposed legislation, the federal government would pay up to 75 percent of the cost of the joint program and the states would contribute the rest.

Advantages of the proposed program include: (1) reducing a public health hazard; (2) taking a step toward resolving problems of radioactive waste disposal; and (3) improving the depressed value of land on or near which the tailings are located. Disadvantages include: (1) its estimated cost of up to $126 million; (2) the precedent for the federal government to pay for cleaning up other nuclear facilities; and (3) the lack of full development of needed technology. The proposed legislation could accomplish its objectives, but the following areas require clarification: (1) the legislation does not put a time limit on states' participation; (2) it excludes some sites from the clean-up program; (3) some sites do not have to be owned by the state or federal government and this could result in a future health hazard; (4) the allocation of costs among governments is not clearly defined; (5) there are no requirements for DOE progress reports to Congress nor for GAO access to all pertinent documents; and (6) unlimited federal funding is authorized. In an existing clean-up program at Grand Junction, Colorado, only half of the project is finished after 6 years, and problems may prevent effective completion of the rest.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should report to Congress whether mill tailings clean-up research and development has reached a point whereby the clean-up program can proceed with a high probability of success at this time, and if not, describe what remains to be done and make recommendations to ensure timely completion. He should see that the clean-up program at Grand Junction is aggressively carried out and report on actions he is taking to contact property owners where measurements are incomplete and encourage them to apply for assistance, expedite the contracting process to complete remedial action work, and assess the significance of the tailings locations not under the purview of the current program. Congress should amend the proposed legislation to: (1) put a time limit on when sites must be cleaned up; (2) require reports to Congress on plans to clean up sites excluded by legislation; (3) require either federal or state ownership of lands on which tailings are to be placed for long-term stabilization; (4) specify costs to be borne by the states and by the federal government; and (5) improve congressional control over the program.

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