Fast Facts

90% of the nuclear waste in tanks at the Department of Energy's site in Hanford, WA is low-activity waste—it is much less radioactive than high-level waste.

To solidify low-activity waste for safe disposal, it can be mixed with

molten glass (used for high-level waste; costs more) or

grout (costs less).

DOE plans to treat up to 1/2 of this low-activity waste with glass, but hasn't decided about the rest. Experts say grout is basically as safe and could speed completion. Other DOE sites use grout for similar waste.

Our recommendations are to help ensure that DOE treats the remaining waste based on the risk it poses, while also considering costs.

Overview of DOE Tank Waste Treatment Status and Approaches at the Savannah River and Hanford Sites

Overview of the Status of Low-Activity Waste Treatment at the Savannah River and Hanford Sites

Overview of the Status of Low-Activity Waste Treatment at the Savannah River and Hanford Sites

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy (DOE) chose different approaches to treat the less radioactive portion of its nuclear weapons waste stored in tanks (tank waste)—which DOE refers to as “low-activity waste” (LAW)—at its two main cleanup sites, primarily in response to input from the two states. At the Savannah River Site, DOE and South Carolina agreed to use an existing facility to grout the site's LAW, a method that DOE determined could treat the waste faster and therefore address risks posed by prolonged storage of liquid waste in tanks sooner. Grout immobilizes waste in a concrete-like mixture. At Hanford, DOE is required by an agreement with the state and the Environmental Protection Agency to treat at least one-third to one-half of the site's LAW with a process called vitrification, which immobilizes the waste in glass. DOE chose vitrification in the 1990s with input from Washington state because studies at that time indicated that vitrification would be the most effective treatment approach for the conditions at Hanford. However, DOE has not yet determined how it will treat the remaining one-half to two-thirds of Hanford's LAW, known as “supplemental LAW,” a decision it has proposed making by 2018. Congress passed legislation in 2004 that clarified DOE's authority to manage the LAW at the Savannah River Site as low-level waste. Clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford, in a manner that does not impair the regulatory authorities of Washington state, to determine whether some portions of the supplemental LAW can be managed as low-level waste, could enhance DOE's ability to make risk-based decisions for supplemental LAW.

At the Savannah River Site, DOE has grouted about 4 million gallons of LAW and has effectively addressed minor technical challenges, but at Hanford DOE has not yet treated any LAW and faces significant unresolved technical challenges. In addition, the best available information indicates that DOE's estimated costs to grout LAW at the Savannah River Site are substantially lower than its estimated costs to vitrify LAW at Hanford, and its schedule for completing LAW treatment at the Savannah River Site is decades shorter than its schedule at Hanford.

According to the 21 experts that attended GAO's meeting convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies), both vitrification and grout could effectively treat Hanford's LAW. These experts stated that current information shows that grout will perform better than was assumed when DOE made its decision to vitrify Hanford's LAW. According to some of the experts, using grout for supplemental LAW could help DOE complete its treatment mission sooner, reducing the environmental risks of leaving waste in tanks for long periods. Experts at GAO's meeting stated that developing updated information on the performance of treating Hanford's supplemental LAW with other methods, such as grout, may enable DOE to consider waste treatment approaches that accelerate DOE's tank waste treatment mission, thereby potentially reducing certain risks and lifecycle treatment costs. However, DOE has not developed current information on the performance of treating LAW with grout, or alternate methods, at Hanford, which is inconsistent with guidance developed by the National Research Council.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOE oversees the treatment and disposal of about 90 million gallons of radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear weapons program. Most of this waste is stored in tanks at DOE sites in Hanford, Washington, and Savannah River, South Carolina. The less radioactive portion of the tank waste, called LAW, comprises more than 90 percent of the waste's volume but less than 10 percent of the total radioactivity. DOE has chosen different approaches for treating LAW at the two sites, but it has not made a final decision on how to treat Hanford's supplemental LAW.

GAO examined (1) DOE's reasons for choosing its treatment approaches for LAW at the Savannah River and Hanford Sites, (2) the status of DOE's treatment of LAW at these sites, and (3) experts' views on the likely performance of approaches for treating Hanford's LAW. GAO reviewed technical reports on DOE's waste treatment strategies at the two sites, interviewed DOE officials at headquarters and the sites, and convened an experts' meeting through the National Academies to discuss the effectiveness and risks of vitrification and grout.

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Recommendations

Congress should consider specifically authorizing DOE to classify Hanford's supplemental LAW based on risk, consistent with existing regulatory authorities. GAO also recommends that DOE develop updated information on the performance of treating LAW with alternate methods, such as grout, before it selects an approach for treating supplemental LAW. DOE agreed with both recommendations.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
To enhance DOE's ability to make risk-based decisions for the treatment of Hanford supplemental LAW, Congress should consider clarifying, in a manner that does not impair the regulatory authorities of EPA and the state of Washington, DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, in consultation with NRC, whether portions of the supplemental LAW can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste.
Open
As of March 2021, Congress is continuing to consider whether to implement this matter.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
1. To help ensure that DOE's treatment of Hanford's supplemental LAW is risk based and cost effective, the Secretary of Energy should develop updated information on the effectiveness of treating and disposing of all the different portions of Hanford's supplemental LAW with alternate methods or at alternate disposal sites, and based on this information, identify potential treatment and disposal pathways for different portions of Hanford's supplemental LAW, considering the risks posed by the LAW. In implementing this recommendation, DOE should take into account the results of the analysis required by Section 3134 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.
Open
As of January 2021, DOE is taking steps to implement this recommendation. In 2017, DOE's Office of River Protection contracted with Savannah River National Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center, to evaluate viable treatment options for supplemental low-activity waste (LAW). According to DOE, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a peer review of that laboratory's evaluation. The laboratory issued a final report in October 2019, and the National Academies issued a final report in late March 2020. According to DOE officials, both reports include information DOE may be able to use in making a decision about treating supplemental LAW. DOE told GAO that they plan to use the studies as scoping documents as they move forward with the decision process. The William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal year 2021 requires DOE to contract with a federally funded research and development center to conduct follow-on analysis of this evaluation, including information allowing for direct comparison of treatment and disposal options. DOE is required to have this analysis peer reviewed by the National Academies. According to DOE officials, as of January 2020, DOE plans to decide how it will treat supplemental LAW by 2026. In addition, in response to GAO's May 2017 recommendation, DOE said it successfully completed the first phase of a project--called the Test Bed Initiative--in December 2017 to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of three gallons of Hanford's LAW at an alternate disposal site in Andrews, Texas. As of November 2018, DOE was beginning a second phase to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of 2,000 gallons of Hanford's LAW at the same site in Texas. However, DOE stopped the demonstration project in spring 2019 when it withdrew its permit application for the Test Bed Initiative. According to DOE officials, this was because the State of Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) proposed that DOE and Ecology engage in negotiations to develop a "holistic and realistic" approach to the retrieval and treatment of Hanford's tank waste. Congressional appropriations committees provided that DOE could spend up to $10 million to continue the Test Bed Initiative in fiscal year 2020, but DOE officials do not have specific plans for resuming the initiative. In June 2019, DOE issued a new interpretation of the statutory term "high-level waste," which could facilitate the use of alternate treatment and disposal methods. DOE completed its first application of the high-level waste interpretation in September 2020 by shipping a small quantity of recycled wastewater from the Savannah River Site to an off-site low-level waste disposal facility in Texas. According to a report issued by DOE in December 2020, which examined using this interpretation to facilitate alternate disposal pathways, applying this interpretation for certain tanks at Hanford could save between $73 billion and $210 billion. However, the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2021 prohibits DOE from spending its fiscal year 2021 funds on applying this high-level radioactive waste interpretation at Hanford, and as a result, DOE officials stated that DOE does not have near-term plans to use this high-level waste interpretation for supplemental LAW at Hanford. Until DOE develops information that reflects what is now known about the performance of alternate treatment and disposal methods, such as immobilizing tank waste in grout, congressional and agency decision makers will not have access to current scientific information as they decide how to best allocate limited financial resources among many competing needs. Moreover, having updated information on the effectiveness of alternate methods for treating supplemental LAW will help to inform DOE's discussions with the state of Washington.
Department of Energy 2. To help ensure that DOE's treatment of Hanford's supplemental LAW is risk based and cost effective, the Secretary of Energy should have an independent entity develop updated information on the lifecycle costs of treating and disposing of Hanford's supplemental LAW with alternate methods or at alternate disposal sites. In implementing this recommendation, DOE should take into account the results of the analysis required by Section 3134 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017.
Open
As of January 2021, DOE is taking steps to implement GAO's May 2017 recommendation. In 2017, DOE's Office of River Protection contracted with Savannah River National Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center, to evaluate viable treatment options for supplemental low-activity waste (LAW). According to DOE, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine conducted a peer review of that laboratory's evaluation. The laboratory issued a final report in October 2019, and the National Academies issued a final report in late March 2020. This report included some information about the estimated costs of alternate treatment options and disposal pathways and found that grouting Hanford's supplemental LAW could save billions of dollars, compared to the cost of vitrifying it. According to DOE officials, both reports include information DOE may be able to use in making a decision about treating supplemental LAW. DOE told GAO that they plan to use the studies as scoping documents as they move forward with the decision process. The William M. (Mac) Thornberry National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal year 2021 requires DOE to contract with a federally funded research and development center to conduct follow-on analysis of this evaluation, including information allowing for direct comparison of treatment and disposal options.. DOE is required to have this analysis peer reviewed by the National Academies. According to DOE officials, as of January 2020, DOE plans to decide how it will treat supplemental LAW by 2026. In addition, in response to GAO's May 2017 recommendation, DOE said it successfully completed the first phase of a project--called the Test Bed Initiative--in December 2017 to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of three gallons of Hanford's LAW at an alternate disposal site in Andrews, Texas. As of November 2018, DOE was beginning a second phase to demonstrate the feasibility of grouting, transporting, and disposing of 2,000 gallons of Hanford's LAW at the same site in Texas. However, DOE stopped the demonstration project in spring 2019 when it withdrew its permit application for the Test Bed Initiative. According to DOE officials, this was because the State of Washington Department of Ecology (Ecology) proposed that DOE and Ecology engage in negotiations to develop a "holistic and realistic" approach to the retrieval and treatment of Hanford's tank waste. Congressional appropriations committees provided that DOE could spend up to $10 million to continue the Test Bed Initiative in fiscal year 2020, but DOE officials do not have specific plans for resuming the initiative. In June 2019, DOE issued a new interpretation of the statutory term "high-level waste," which could facilitate the use of alternate treatment and disposal methods. DOE completed its first application of the high-level waste interpretation in September 2020 by shipping a small quantity of recycled wastewater from the Savannah River Site to an off-site low-level waste disposal facility in Texas. According to a report issued by DOE in December 2020, which examined using this interpretation to facilitate alternate disposal pathways, applying this interpretation for certain tanks at Hanford could save between $73 and $210 billion. The NDAA for Fiscal Year 2021 prohibits DOE from spending its fiscal year 2021 funds at Hanford on this high-level radioactive waste interpretation, and as a result, DOE officials stated that DOE does not have near-term plans to use this high-level waste interpretation for supplemental LAW at Hanford. Until DOE develops information that reflects what is now known about the costs of alternate treatment and disposal methods, such as immobilizing tank waste in grout, congressional and agency decision makers will not have access to current cost information as they decide how to best allocate limited financial resources among many competing needs.

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