Nuclear Waste:

Management Problems at the Department of Energy's Hanford Spent Fuel Storage Project

T-RCED-98-119: Published: May 12, 1998. Publicly Released: May 12, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the Department of Energy's (DOE) project to change how DOE stores spent (or irradiated) nuclear fuel from its nuclear reactors at DOE's Hanford site in Washington, focusing on the: (1) risks posed by the storage of the spent nuclear fuel; (2) project's status; (3) major reasons for delays and cost increases; and (4) measures being taken to address these delays and cost increases.

GAO noted that: (1) as stored, most of the spent fuel at Hanford presents a risk of releasing nuclear materials to the environment and a consequent danger both to workers and the public; (2) this fuel sits in two water basins that are well beyond their design life and are located just 1,400 feet from the Columbia River; (3) never designed for long-term storage in water, some of the spent fuel has corroded, creating a radioactive sludge that has accumulated in the storage basins; (4) because of leaks in the basins, workers risk exposure to radioactive materials if contaminated water is released to the soil, and the public risks exposure if this water moves through the soil to the river; (5) it is likely that radioactive materials carried in water leaking from one of the basins have reached the river at least twice in the past; (6) although progress has been made in designing and constructing the new facilities, the schedule proposed by the contractors in April 1998 is over 4 years behind the original schedule for completion, and the estimated costs to build and operate the project have almost doubled, to about $1.4 billion; (7) the date to begin moving the spent fuel out of the basins, an important milestone for the project, given the health and safety risks associated with storage conditions, will be delayed until November 2000--almost 3 years beyond the original plan; (8) DOE wanted a compressed schedule for completing the project because of safety concerns at the existing storage basins and because DOE thought that a compressed schedule would improve the contractor's performance; (9) the lack of adequate management by the companies working on the spent fuel project for DOE--Westinghouse Hanford Company, the company that managed the project until 1996, and Duke Engineering, the company now responsible for the project--also contributed to schedule delays and cost overruns; (10) furthermore, oversight by both DOE and its management and integration contractor at the Hanford site--Fluor Daniel Hanford, Inc.--was insufficient to ensure that problems were quickly corrected; (11) recent management changes have been made, and oversight of the project has become more aggressive; (12) in addition, Duke Engineering has replaced several key managers and reorganized its operations and procedures; (13) DOE is negotiating with its regulators--the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology--new milestone dates that DOE believes it can meet; and (14) these problems and unresolved technical questions will continue to affect DOE's ability to set reliable targets.

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