Low-Level Radioactive Waste: Disposal Availability Adequate in the Short Term, but Oversight Needed to Identify Any Future Shortfalls

GAO-04-604 Published: Jun 10, 2004. Publicly Released: Jun 10, 2004.
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Low-level radioactive waste (LLRW) management concerns persist despite enactment of the LLRW Policy Act of 1980, as amended, which made states responsible for providing for disposal of most LLRW. It also enumerated guidance and oversight responsibilities for DOE and NRC. When GAO last reported on LLRW disposal, in 1999, the only existing facility accepting the more highly radioactive types of LLRW (known as class B and C waste) from most states was expected to be full within 10 years. In this context, GAO examined (1) changes in LLRW conditions since 1999, (2) recent annual LLRW disposal volumes and potential future volumes, (3) any current or anticipated shortfalls in disposal availability, and (4) potential effects of any such shortfall.

GAO identified several changes in LLRW disposal availability and federal agency oversight since its 1999 report that have had or might have significant impacts on LLRW management by the states. For example, while one disposal facility plans to close to most states and new options are evolving that may counteract this shortfall, federal guidance and oversight of LLRW management has virtually ended. Annual LLRW disposal volumes increased 200 percent between 1999 and 2003, primarily due to LLRW shipped to commercial disposal by DOE. GAO identified this increase using data from the three commercial disposal facility operators because GAO determined that data from the national LLRW database, maintained by DOE to assist the LLRW community in managing LLRW, were unreliable. The uncertain timing and volume of future waste shipments from DOE and nuclear utilities make it difficult to forecast disposal needs for all classes of LLRW. At current LLRW disposal volumes, disposal availability appears adequate until at least mid-2008 for class B and C wastes. There are no expected shortfalls in disposal availability for class A waste. If disposal conditions do not change, however, most states will not have a place to dispose of their class B and C wastes after 2008. Nevertheless, any disposal shortfall that might arise is unlikely to pose an immediate problem because generators can minimize, process, and safely store waste. While these approaches are costly, GAO did not detect other immediate widespread effects. NRC places no limit on stored waste and presently does not centrally track it. However, as LLRW storage volume and duration increase in the absence of reliable and cost-effective disposal options, so might the safety and security risks.

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Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress may wish to consider directing NRC to report to it if LLRW disposal and storage conditions should change enough to warrant congressional evaluation of alternatives to ensure safe, reliable and cost effectiveness of disposal availability.
Closed – Not Implemented
No congressional action is expected on this issue.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should halt dissemination of information contained in the online national LLRW database as long as the database has internal control weaknesses and shortcomings in its usefulness and reliability.
Closed – Implemented
Although DOE disagreed with GAO's recommendation to halt dissemination of information contained in the online database, DOE stated that erroneous information found in the database was removed and that new information provided by the responsible waste disposal site operator was added to the database. DOE explained that this new information included additional historical records, and that a new data table had been added which provides users with summary information on the waste not reported in the database. In addition, members of an industry group provided assistance in identifying additional errors--many of these errors have been corrected and the remaining errors will be resolved with the assistance of an ongoing work group established by the industry group to identify additional errors in the database and to identify other changes to improve the usefulness of the database.

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