Nuclear Energy:

Environmental Issues at DOE's Nuclear Defense Facilities

RCED-86-192: Published: Sep 8, 1986. Publicly Released: Sep 25, 1986.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO: (1) identified key environmental issues at nine Department of Energy (DOE) nuclear defense facilities; and (2) evaluated the status of DOE efforts to strengthen its environmental, safety, and health oversight programs.

GAO found that: (1) eight facilities have groundwater contaminated with radioactive or hazardous substances at levels higher than the proposed standards; (2) although six facilities have soil contamination in unexpected areas, including off-site locations, DOE sees a potential public health threat at only one of the facilities; (3) four facilities are not in full compliance with the Clean Water Act; (4) to obtain permits under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), all nine facilities are significantly changing their waste disposal practices by closing existing disposal facilities or building new treatment facilities; and (5) it may cost over $1 billion to bring the facilities into full compliance with environmental laws and obtain the necessary permits.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE Orders 5400.1 and 5400.5 were revised since this recommendation was made. They include requirements and guidelines for the protection of groundwater and soil at all DOE sites limiting both radiological and non-radiological contamination. These orders also include clear policy statements on the priority DOE places on cleaning up existing contamination, and preventing future contamination. This recommendation should be closed.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should establish a groundwater and soil protection strategy that would reflect DOE policy on the extent to which groundwater and soil can become contaminated and include specific guidelines, to the extent practical, to protect groundwater and soil around DOE facilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 1989, DOE issued its "Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Five-Year Plan", which implements this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should provide to Congress a comprehensive report setting forth DOE plans, milestones, and cost estimates for bringing DOE defense facilities into compliance with all applicable environmental laws.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE issued a rule which would allow for state governments to eventually inspect its waste sites.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should provide for independent inspections of DOE operations in regard to the treatment and disposal of any mixed waste that may be exempt from RCRA regulation.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE Order 5480.2, governing hazardous and mixed waste, has been cancelled and replaced by DOE Order 5400.3, issued on February 22, 1989. The new order confirms the DOE position that all radioactive and hazardous wastes are regulated respectively by the Atomic Energy Act and RCRA as to their radiological and hazardous components.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should revise DOE Order 5480.2 governing hazardous and mixed waste to reflect how waste operations will be managed in the future.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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