Fast Facts

DOE’s Legacy Management Office oversees long-term surveillance and maintenance of cleaned-up U.S. nuclear weapons production and energy research sites. It manages activities like treating residual groundwater contamination and repairing aging landfills.

Currently, the Office oversees 100 sites and may manage some for centuries. Site numbers and costs are expected to grow.

The Office has not planned how it will

handle new cleanup work that is outside its expertise

assess and mitigate the effects of climate change on its sites

We recommended the Office develop procedures and plans in these areas to better protect people and the environment.

Erosion damage at a site in New Mexico that holds 2.1 million tons of radioactive residual material

Erosion damage

Erosion damage

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The environmental liability of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Legacy Management (LM) was estimated at $7.35 billion in fiscal year 2019 and, according to LM officials, is expected to grow as LM acquires more sites (see figure for LM's current sites). Long-term surveillance and maintenance activities associated with radioactive and hazardous waste, such as treating residual groundwater contamination, account for about 40 percent of the costs. LM's environmental liability has generally remained stable over the past 5 years. As of September 2019, LM is scheduled to receive 52 additional sites by 2050, and officials expect LM's environmental liability to grow as a result. Officials said LM is taking steps to reduce its environmental liability at its current sites, such as exploring alternative approaches for reducing residual contamination.

LM officials identified challenges in providing long-term surveillance and maintenance of sites related to: (1) the performance of remedies that contain or reduce contamination, (2) environmental conditions, and (3) new regulatory requirements. LM is taking some actions to address these challenges. For example, at its Rocky Flats, Colorado, site, LM is repairing an aging landfill that was damaged by extreme rainfall events. However, LM has not yet planned for how to address challenges at some sites that may require new cleanup work that is not in the scope of LM's expertise and resources. By developing agreements and procedures with the entities that would be responsible for conducting this new cleanup work, LM can help mitigate risks to human health and the environment. In addition, LM has not made plans to assess the effects of climate change on its sites or to mitigate those effects, as called for in its strategic plan. By developing plans to assess the effect of climate change on its sites and to mitigate any significant impacts, LM could better ensure that its remedies will protect human health and the environment in the long term.

Figure: Map of 100 Sites Managed by DOE Office of Legacy Management (as of September 2019)

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Why GAO Did This Study

After over 70 years of nuclear weapons production and energy research at hundreds of sites across the country, DOE faces over $500 billion in environmental liabilities associated with cleanup of hazardous contamination and long-term management of these sites. LM is responsible for the portion of these liabilities associated with long-term management of sites after active cleanup has been completed. LM oversees 100 sites across the country. Depending on the sites' clean-up standards and intended reuse, LM will likely be managing some sites for centuries.

Senate Report 116-48 accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 includes a provision for GAO to review LM's operations, including the nature of its environmental liability. This report examines (1) LM's environmental liability, and (2) any challenges LM faces in managing its sites and how it is addressing those challenges. GAO analyzed data on LM's environmental liability; interviewed officials at LM headquarters and those responsible for the nine sites requiring the most intensive level of management; and reviewed relevant policies, procedures, and guidance.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that DOE develop agreements and procedures for circumstances that require new cleanup work and that it develop plans to assess and to mitigate the effects of climate change on its sites. DOE agreed with all three recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy 1. The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of LM and the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to develop agreements and procedures for identifying and addressing circumstances at LM sites that require new cleanup work beyond the scope of LM's mission, capabilities, and resources. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In providing comments on this report, DOE concurred with this recommendation but has not yet taken actions necessary to implement it. In February 2021, DOE officials told us that the Office of Legacy Management (LM) and the Office of Environmental Management have developed a draft policy to establish and implement procedures for identifying and addressing new cleanup work beyond LM's mission, capability, and resources. They said the draft policy is currently under review. DOE officials estimated that this effort would be completed by September 2021.
Department of Energy 2. The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of LM to work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop agreements and procedures for identifying and addressing circumstances at LM sites that require new cleanup work beyond the scope of LM's mission, capabilities, and resources. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In providing comments on this report, DOE concurred with this recommendation but has not yet taken actions necessary to implement it. In February 2021, DOE officials told us that the Office of Legacy Management (LM) is working work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to clarify NRC's post-cleanup responsibilities and authority for Uranium Mill Tailings Radiation Control Act sites that have been transferred to LM. They said that LM and NRC will develop agreements and procedures for identifying and addressing new cleanup work beyond LM's mission scope of providing long-term stewardship. DOE officials estimated that this effort would be completed by September 2021.
Department of Energy 3. The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of LM to, as called for in LM's strategic plan, develop plans to assess the effect of climate change on LM's sites and to mitigate any significant impacts. These plans should incorporate principles from GAO's Disaster Resilience Framework, as appropriate. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In providing comments on this report, DOE concurred with this recommendation but has not yet taken actions necessary to implement it. In February 2021, DOE officials told us that the Office of Legacy Management (LM) is collaborating with DOE National Laboratories to address this recommendation. They said that LM is planning to partner with one or more national labs to assess the impacts of climate change on LM's sites and to determine how these impacts are captured in DOE's environmental liabilities. DOE officials estimated that this effort would be completed by September 2022.

Full Report

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