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Highlights

At its Hanford Site in Washington State, the Department of Energy (DOE) is responsible for one of the world's biggest cleanup projects: the treatment and disposal of about 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste, stored in 177 underground tanks. Two decades and several halted efforts later, none of this waste has yet been treated, cleanup costs have grown steadily, and prospective cleanup time frames have lengthened. GAO was asked to assess (1) DOE's current tank waste cleanup strategy and key technical, legal, and other uncertainties; (2) the extent to which DOE has analyzed whether this strategy is commensurate with risks from the wastes; and (3) opportunities to reduce tank waste cleanup costs. GAO reviewed pertinent documents, visited the site, and interviewed officials and independent experts.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy 1. In light of growing costs and lengthening schedules as DOE proceeds with its strategy to treat and permanently dispose of Hanford's tank waste, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management to develop credible and complete life-cycle cost and schedule estimates, which include actual costs expended to date and projected future expenditures for all key elements; obtain independent expert evaluation of these estimates; and report these estimated costs to Congress.
Closed - Implemented
In July 2011, DOE issued its 2011 Hanford Lifecycle Scope, Schedule and Cost Report that contained a comprehensive life-cycle cost estimate for all work at Hanford, including its tank waste strategy. This report was issued as the result of Tri-Party Agreement negotiations between DOE and the state of Washington. DOE considers this recommendation closed.
Department of Energy 2. In light of growing costs and lengthening schedules as DOE proceeds with its strategy to treat and permanently dispose of Hanford's tank waste, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management to adopt a risk assessment framework for Hanford cleanup that considers available guidance, such as that provided by the National Academy of Sciences.
Closed - Implemented
As of August 2013, DOE noted that its Hanford Office of River Protection (ORP) had performed an assessment of the risk assessment framework for Hanford tank waste cleanup. The DOE-ORP assessment concluded that the risk assessment framework associated with Hanford Tank Waste Cleanup is thorough and considers available guidance. DOE considers this recommendation to be closed.
Department of Energy 3. In light of growing costs and lengthening schedules as DOE proceeds with its strategy to treat and permanently dispose of Hanford's tank waste, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management to consider seeking clarification from Congress about the department's authority at Hanford to determine whether some waste now managed by DOE as high-level waste can be treated and disposed of as a waste type other than high-level waste
Closed - Not Implemented
In its response to our report, DOE noted it did not agree with GAO's recommendation and that no additional action would be taken.
Department of Energy 4. In light of growing costs and lengthening schedules as DOE proceeds with its strategy to treat and permanently dispose of Hanford's tank waste, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management to work with state and federal regulators to develop a risk-based approach for closing waste storage tanks in an efficient and effective manner--such as through a tank closure demonstration project--and to analyze varying amounts of waste that could be safely left in the tanks or a group of tanks at closing, with the goal of reducing costs while adequately protecting human and ecological health.
Closed - Not Implemented
In 2009, DOE initiated an Integrated Project Team (IPT) specifically to evaluate current and emerging tank waste strategies for Hanford and the Savannah River Site. The IPT evaluated various technical options for addressing tank waste, completing its work with a report in January 2010. With this report, DOE considers this recommendation to be closed. However, the IPT did not evaluate approaches to closing waste storage tanks that involved analyzing varying amounts of waste that could be safely left in the tank with the goal of reducing costs while adequately protecting human and ecological health. We, therefore, consider the recommendation closed but not implemented.

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