Nuclear Waste Cleanup:

DOE's Paducah Plan Faces Uncertainties and Excludes Costly Cleanup Activities

RCED-00-96: Published: Apr 28, 2000. Publicly Released: May 3, 2000.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) Paducah plant cleanup plan, focusing on: (1) the planned activities, cost, and schedule DOE has for cleaning up the site; (2) the challenges that exist in accomplishing the current cleanup plan; and (3) whether the cleanup plan includes all areas at the site requiring cleanup.

GAO noted that: (1) DOE's plan for addressing the contamination at the Paducah site focuses on six major cleanup categories; (2) four of these address the physical contamination on the site: (a) groundwater; (b) surface water; (c) soils; and (d) buried waste; (3) two other major categories of cleanup work include treating and disposing of the equivalent of about 52,000 barrels of waste stored on site and decontaminating and removing two unused, contaminated uranium process buildings; (4) the cleanup plan includes cost and schedule estimates for characterizing the contamination in each cleanup category and for using technologies to treat, remove, and dispose of the contamination; (5) the current plan estimates the cost of completing the cleanup at $1.3 billion from fiscal years 2000 through 2010; (6) DOE faces many challenges to completing its cleanup as planned; (7) uncertainties about the extent, source, and nature of contamination yet to be cleaned up could affect the cleanup plan; (8) DOE also faces several technical risks, including the planned use of technologies that are unproven or perhaps not well suited to the site's conditions; (9) also underpinning the plan are assumptions that annual federal funding will increase to an average of $124 million through 2010; (10) if the planned increase in funding does not occur, the project could take longer to complete; (11) these issues make it uncertain that DOE will be able to accomplish the cleanup within its estimated timeframe and cost; (12) even when the planned cleanup has been carried out, billions of dollars and many years will be needed to address areas at the Paducah site that are not in the cleanup plan; (13) four areas at the site that will need cleaning up are: (a) large amounts of waste and scrap materials; (b) various unused buildings and structures; (c) thousands of tons of depleted uranium; and (d) the buildings and equipment that are now being used in the enrichment process but that will have to be cleaned up when the plant closes; (14) the additional materials, buildings, and structures are excluded from the cleanup plan because they fall under the purview of a different departmental program; and (15) according to the DOE official responsible for these areas, they are not in the cleanup plan because DOE is hesitant to transfer any more areas to the Office of Environmental Management, which already has a large workload and limited funding for cleanup.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: At the beginning of fiscal year 2001, responsibility for all cleanup at Paducah was transferred to the Office of Environmental Management.

    Recommendation: To ensure that priorities are established on a comprehensive, sitewide basis to clean up and dispose of materials that are potential health hazards and that a more comprehensive picture of cleanup is presented to Congress, the Secretary of Energy should transfer the responsibility for the material storage areas and the unused structures from its Office of Nuclear Energy to its Office of Environmental Management.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: At the beginning of fiscal year 2001, the Office of Environmental Management redid its cleanup plan (the baseline) to incorporate and prioritize the cleanup of all materials at the site, including the depleted uranium hexafluoride.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Office of Environmental Management to address in the cleanup plan, regardless of the current organizational responsibility, any and all materials at the site that are potential health hazards and to reexamine the sitewide contamination risks and cleanup priorities, costs, and schedules.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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