DOE national radioactive waste study branded a lemon

UC faculty panel recommends severing ties with nuclear weapons labs

* Last August, DOE released the Waste Management Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (or PEIS). The study cost $59 million and is six inches thick. Last week, the newspaper USA Today came out with a lengthy expose on the Waste Management PEIS. USA Today contended that the study is so flawed, so incomplete, and so irrelevent that at least three more studies are required to fill in its gaps. A scientist, who worked on the study and ten was laid off after raising technical concerns, said, "The wasted a lot of taxpayers' money." The DOE Undersecretary in charge of the Waste Management PEIS stated, "We can still use the data, but it has to be used judiciously. Very judiciously." Many environmentalists, who originally pushed for the study, blasted the document. "You can look at it as a victory in terms of getting DOE to talk about the problems," said Tim O'Conner of the Energy Research Foundation. "But in terms of a decision-making tool, the country bought a lemon."

A half-century of nuclear weapons production has resulted in massive radioactive and hazardous contamination at scores of sites across the country. Cleanup of those sites is expected to cost at least $250 billion and take 70 years. The Waste Management PEIS was supposed to help guide this colossal effort by studying the environmental and health effects of different treatment options. However, early on, DOE decided to study only the waste management of currently-generated and future wastes, and not include actual cleanup as originally called for.

In the late 1980s, the Bush Administration wanted to modernize the nuclear weapons complex, but dangerous environmental problems kept getting in the way. When DOE announced plans to clean up waste at various sites, environmental groups sued under the National Environmental Policy Act in order to compel public assessment of the risks associated with cleanup. In 1990, DOE agreed to prepare the Waste Management PEIS, which DOE said would be completed by 1993. But the study appears to have been doomed by bad management under an inexperienced subcontractor, confusion over DOE's changing missions brought on by the end of the Cold War, and institutional inertia stemming from the secretive culture of the nuclear weapons complex.

UC faculty panel recommends severing ties with nuclear weapons labs

The UC Faculty Commitee on Research Policy has charged that the University of California (UC) has failed to adequately manage Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) and recommended that UC take steps to terminate its contract. UC has managed LANL and its sister laboratory in California, Lawrence Livermore, since both labs were founded. This report comes at a time when DOE is on the brink of deciding whether to renew the UC LANL management contract or to put it out into competitive bid for the first time. UC has said that it won't subject itself to competition. The panel also recommended that the issue be put into a vote before the entire 8,000 member UC faculty. After the last report in 1989, the UC faculty voted 2 to 1 in favor of phasing out management contracts.

A number of UC faculty reports on lab management have been issued over the years. A 1970 report found that "the University plays the role of benevolent absentee landlord. It extends its protective shield over the laboratories and allows them to go their way." A 1978 report called for contract renewal only if significant changes were made, including the creation of a new managemant oversight board. A 1989 report found that management of the two nuclear weapons laboratories was contrary to the fundamental nature of UC because of the secrecy required. Faculty votes and reports have no binding effect on the UC regents who have ultimate authority on a decision to maintain the management contracts.

With the release of other information, DOE accounting now puts the total U.S. plutonium inventory at 99.5. metric tons, including all nuclear weapons and all stockpiles. DOE's disclosures are part of an effort to encourage other countries to reveal their plutonium inventories. The American inventory is believed to be considerably less than half of the total global inventory, with Russia holding most of the rest.

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