Environmental Liabilities: DOE Needs to Better Plan for Post-Cleanup Challenges Facing Sites

GAO-20-373 Published: May 13, 2020. Publicly Released: May 13, 2020.
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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 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)
Closed – Implemented
In fiscal year 2022, we verified that DOE, in response to our recommendation, issued a policy memorandum providing guidance on the actions to be undertaken by the Office of Legacy Management (LM) and Office of Environmental Management (EM) to identify and address new cleanup work beyond LM's mission, capability, and resources. Specifically, the memorandum outlines LM and EM roles and responsibilities for identifying, planning, funding, and executing repairs and new cleanup work at former EM sites that are under LM's portfolio.
Department of Energy 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 January 2022, DOE officials told us that the Office of Legacy Management (LM) is working 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 are developing agreements and procedures for identifying and addressing new cleanup work beyond LM's mission scope of providing long-term stewardship. We will continue to monitor the status of this recommendation as LM and NRC undertake this effort.
Department of Energy 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 all actions necessary to implement it. In January 2022, DOE officials told us that the Office of Legacy Management (LM) is collaborating with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to identify and assess the impacts of climate change on LM's sites. Specifically, DOE officials said that LM has completed a survey identifying sites' critical elements and potential vulnerabilities, and that the Laboratory is developing site-specific climate information to assess whether future climate scenarios have the potential to exceed design requirements of key site infrastructure or alter the performance of systems, such as disposal cells. According to DOE officials, LM will use the results of this work to identify site-specific and systemic needs and vulnerabilities and to formulate mitigation plans. DOE officials estimated that this effort would be completed by September 2022.

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