Nuclear Waste:

Improvements Needed in Monitoring Contaminants in Hanford Soils

RCED-92-149: Published: Jul 6, 1992. Publicly Released: Aug 26, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO examined the Department of Energy's (DOE) programs to monitor and characterize contamination in the vadose zone, the unsaturated soil above the groundwater table, at the DOE Hanford site, focusing on: (1) how effective existing DOE vadose zone programs have been; (2) how successful DOE has been developing a strategy for improving its programs; and (3) whether additional use of electronic radiation detection technology could save money and reduce health and safety risks during the cleanup.

GAO found that: (1) existing vadose zone programs are ineffective because of limited funding, an absence of modern equipment, and inability to detect new leaks quickly or determine the extent of contamination beneath the soil's surface; (2) DOE has not developed a strategy for coordinating its various vadose zone activities; (3) a strategy is needed to ensure that adequate money and effort are placed into improving programs and that DOE and contractor efforts are well coordinated; and (4) use of electronic radiation detection technology can cut the costs of environmental cleanup and reduce the risks of contaminating groundwater and exposing workers to radiation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has awarded a contract to an experienced outside contractor to conduct vadose zone monitoring in the tank farms. As a result, changes have been made in the monitoring process and equipment to put it on a sound technical basis. This completes the response to this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve the vadose zone monitoring effort, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Field Office to review and update current monitoring procedures. This effort should require periodic calibration of the monitoring probes, use of appropriate logging speeds, and correction of radiation measurements.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 1994, DOE drafted, but did not issue and implement, a vadose zone management plan. In April 1998, however, DOE issued a new plan for integrated study of the vadose and groundwater zones. DOE's primary goal is to establish and maintain a site-wide management function that is responsible for identifying, correlating, and coordinating plans and activities that pose a real or potential impact to the soil, the groundwater, and the Columbia River. The approach outlined in the plan is to: organize a project team; identify key interfaces, tasks, planning gaps, overlaps and decision points; define and manage technical scope, cost, and schedule; and execute work using existing site organizations. Three peer review processes are to be used to ensure technical excellence, and opportunities have been built into the plan for early and meaningful input to the planning process by Tribal Nations and other stakeholders.

    Recommendation: To improve the vadose zone monitoring effort, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Field Office to develop and implement the vadose monitoring plan called for in Hanford's Groundwater Management Protection Plan. This plan should include: (1) an integrated management approach; (2) a strategy for modernizing existing vadose zone equipment; (3) a timetable, which should be tied to Hanford's cleanup schedule, for acquiring equipment and implementing program improvements, such as the installation of the calibration models; and (4) an approach for tracking the migration of contaminants from the active and inactive liquid waste disposal sites.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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