Nuclear Cleanup:

Completion of Standards and Effectiveness of Land Use Planning Are Uncertain

RCED-94-144: Published: Aug 26, 1994. Publicly Released: Oct 6, 1994.

Additional Materials:


Victor S. Rezendes
(202) 512-6082


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Department of Energy's (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) progress in determining cleanup standards and land uses for nuclear waste-contaminated sites, focusing on: (1) how cleanup levels are currently determined for DOE sites; (2) the status of EPA efforts to develop cleanup standards for radionuclides; (3) the status of DOE land use planning efforts; and (4) hurdles the agencies need to overcome to effectively implement land use planning.

GAO found that: (1) because there are no comprehensive and specific federal standards for cleaning up radioactive contamination, EPA and DOE use other appropriate federal and state environmental standards in selecting remedial action for DOE sites; (2) the current process for identifying cleanup requirements is time-consuming and contentious, since standards are individually developed for each DOE site; (3) the lack of uniform standards results in varying cleanup levels and makes it difficult for DOE to plan and estimate the costs for its cleanup and waste disposal program; (4) the success of interagency efforts to establish standards is uncertain because of the complex and controversial nature of the issues to be resolved; (5) EPA plans to publish a proposed rule for radionuclide cleanup based on the interagency committee's recommendations, but it has not established a timeframe for issuing a final rule; (6) based on an advisory committee recommendation, DOE has begun using land use planning to develop tailored remediation plans for its sites and reduce costs; and (7) obstacles to effective land use planning include unclear authority to consider other than residential uses for contaminated sites and the lack of guidance on monitoring restricted uses of residually contaminated sites.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) reauthorization bills were introduced in the 103rd and 104th Congresses, which included provisions on land use. For example, H.R. 2500 from the 104th Congress stated that remedy selection shall take into account the current and reasonably anticipated future uses of land, water, and other resources. However, after failing to revise CERCLA in two successive Congresses, there does not appear to be any impetus in Congress to revise CERCLA in the near future.

    Matter: If Congress agrees with DOE and EPA plans to utilize land use planning, Congress could consider amending the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act to provide more specific direction about incorporating future land uses when determining cleanup levels and selecting remedial actions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA did not issue a proposed radiation cleanup rule in spring 1996, as planned, because of renewed disagreement among affected federal agencies. The goal of the recommendation was to expedite issuance of the radiation cleanup rule so that standards would be available before expected decision points for DOE's cleanup sites. Although EPA expects to eventually issue the proposed rule and then a final rule, issuance has not occurred in the timely manner envisioned in the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To provide standards before many decisions about DOE cleanups are made, the Administrator, EPA, with other members of the interagency group, should complete the work of the Interagency Radiation Cleanup Information and Technology Committee by the end of 1995.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA believes that additional guidance is unnecessary because (1) existing guidance requires reviewing all aspects of a remedy's protectiveness; and (2) general guidance would have little value because state and local laws governing land use vary widely.

    Recommendation: To help overcome potential disadvantages of a land use planning approach, the Administrator, EPA, should provide more detailed guidance for 5-year reviews of sites not returned to unrestricted use and communicate this guidance to DOE. The guidance should: (1) specify that such reviews address whether land use patterns are changing or likely to change in the near future; and (2) discuss responsibilities for maintaining land use restrictions. If such guidance would involve responsibilities of state and local governments, EPA should consult with them in developing the guidance.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: EPA responded that, if a 5-year review found a remedy to no longer be successful, EPA would consider additional cleanup actions, including technological advances. EPA does not intend to include consideration of technological advances in records of decision.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should specify in records of decision for DOE sites with residual contamination that 5-year reviews be supplemented by the consideration of advances in technology that may make more extensive cleanup feasible.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Jun 25, 2020

May 29, 2020

May 5, 2020

Apr 22, 2020

Mar 31, 2020

Mar 11, 2020

Mar 6, 2020

Mar 2, 2020

Looking for more? Browse all our products here