Fast Facts

The Department of Energy, under agreement with EPA and Washington State, is cleaning up radioactive waste at its Hanford site. It finished retrieving waste from one group of underground tanks—a "tank farm"—and it has begun retrieving waste from 2 of the remaining 17.

If DOE classifies the residual waste in tanks as something other than high-level waste, and the state approves it, DOE can fill the tanks with grout and leave them in place. This could avoid some risks and save $18 billion. But DOE's legal authority to do this is unclear.

We recommended that Congress consider clarifying DOE's authority to manage the residual waste.

Example of a Single-Shell Tank at Hanford, WA

Workers on a large tank with a ladder and a crane in the foreground

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy (DOE) has retrieved nuclear waste from all the tanks at C-farm—the first of 18 tank farms (i.e., groupings of tanks) at DOE's Hanford site in southeastern Washington State. The waste is a byproduct of decades of nuclear weapons production and research. DOE is obligated under agreements with the state's Department of Ecology (Ecology) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move waste from older, single-shell tanks to newer, more durable, double-shell tanks and ultimately to dispose of it.

Example of a Tank and of Waste in a Tank at Hanford

Example of a Tank and of Waste in a Tank at Hanford

DOE intends to “close” the C-farm by leaving the nearly empty tanks in place and filling them with grout. However, DOE faces challenges, in part because this approach depends on: (1) DOE's determination under its directives that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste (HLW) and (2) Ecology's approval. DOE has started the determination process, but as GAO has previously found, DOE is likely to face a lawsuit because of questions about its legal authority. Ecology has raised concerns that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has not independently reviewed DOE's analysis for this determination. By Congress clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW, DOE would be in a better position to move forward.

Another challenge DOE faces in closing C-farm is how to address contaminated soil caused by leaks or discharges of waste from the tanks. DOE and Ecology officials do not agree on a process for evaluating contaminated soil at C-farm or on what role NRC should play in this process. They interpret their agreement differently, particularly regarding whether NRC must review DOE's analysis of contaminated soil. If the two parties cannot resolve this issue, Ecology may deny DOE a permit for C-farm closure. By using an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on how to assess soil contamination, including NRC's role, DOE would be better positioned to avoid future cleanup delays.

DOE has not developed a long-term plan for tank-farm closure, in part, because a plan is not required. However, leading practices in program management call for long-term planning. In addition, DOE faces technical challenges that may take years to address as noted by representatives from various entities or tribal governments. For example, an internal DOE document states there is a 95 percent probability DOE will run out of space in its double shell tanks—space needed to continue retrieval operations. Planning for and building new tanks requires years of work. By developing a long-term plan, DOE could better prepare to address technical challenges.

Why GAO Did This Study

The Hanford site in Washington State contains about 54 million gallons of nuclear waste, which is stored in 177 underground storage tanks. In fiscal years 1997 through 2019, DOE spent over $10 billion to maintain Hanford's tanks and retrieve waste from them. DOE expects to spend at least $69 billion more on activities to retrieve tank waste and close tanks, according to a January 2019 DOE report.

Senate Report 116-48, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, included a provision for GAO to review the status of tank closures at Hanford. GAO's report examines the status of DOE's efforts to retrieve tank waste, challenges DOE faces in its effort to close the C-farm, as well as DOE's approach for closing the remaining tank farms.

GAO toured the site; reviewed DOE documents, laws, and regulations; and interviewed officials and representatives from local, regional, and national entities and tribal governments.

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Recommendations

Congress should consider clarifying DOE's authority at Hanford to determine, with NRC involvement, whether residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW. GAO is also making three recommendations, including that DOE (1) use an independent mediator to help reach agreement with Ecology on a process for assessing soil contamination, including NRC's role and (2) develop a long-term plan for its tank waste cleanup mission at Hanford. DOE concurred with all three recommendations.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
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, with NRC involvement, that residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than HLW.
Open
As of March 2021, Congress had not passed legislation to clarify DOE's authority at Hanford to determine whether residual tank waste can be managed as a waste type other than high-level waste.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to obtain the assistance of an independent, third-party mediator to help reach agreement with the State of Washington's Department of Ecology on a process for assessing the contaminated soil and what role NRC should play in this process. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In a December 2020 letter signed by the Senior Advisor for Environmental Management that provided agency comments on our draft report, DOE stated that it has engaged in mediated negotiations with EPA and Ecology since June 2020 and that these current actions satisfy our recommendation. DOE also stated that soil is managed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. However, we believe that DOE has not yet satisfied this recommendation. According to DOE officials, as of October 2020, addressing contaminated soil was not part of the initial set of broad topics agreed upon for negotiations nor was the topic of NRC's role on contaminated soil. DOE must still resolve the significant disagreement with Ecology regarding how to address contamination in the soil under the Tri-Party Agreement, including what role NRC should play, regardless of the process DOE must follow under CERCLA.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to develop a long-term plan for DOE's waste retrieval and tank closure mission at the Hanford site. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In an December 2020 letter signed by the Senior Advisor for Environmental Management that provided agency comments on our draft report, DOE stated that it has already engaged in long-term planning through the milestones incorporated in the Tri-Party Agreement, the Consent Decree, and regulatory closure documents submitted to Ecology. In addition, DOE stated that it developed a System Plan that identifies the approaches to be taken for sequencing tank retrievals and closures. However, we believe that DOE must take further action to address this recommendation. DOE's current documents provide high-level milestones but do not constitute a long-term plan that will allow DOE to anticipate and manage the many significant challenges the tank waste mission is facing. Furthermore, as we noted in this report, DOE's System Plan states that it is not intended as a decision or budget document, and DOE officials told us that DOE does not use the system plan as a planning tool.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to assess DOE's efforts to involve stakeholders in the Hanford tank closure process to ensure that DOE engages them in the decision-making process, communicates with them throughout the process in a way that addresses their concerns regarding technical challenges, and provides them with transparent information about the science and rationale behind decisions. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In a December 2020 letter signed by the Senior Advisor for Environmental Management that provided agency comments on our draft report, DOE stated that it recognizes the importance of stakeholder engagement in critical decision-making and that stakeholders are included in the decision-making process in a transparent way, using existing, well-established processes. DOE also provided some examples of how it engages with stakeholders. However, the actions DOE cited do not constitute an assessment of its efforts to involve stakeholders, and we believe that DOE must take further action to address this recommendation.

Full Report

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