DOE Underestimated Cost of Waste Disposal

DOE Underestimated Cost of Waste Disposal

Nuclear weapons research, development and production has left a legacy of waste and environmental contamination at sites all across the country. In 2006 the Department of Energy (DOE) stated that the future cost to clean up, dispose and provide long-term oversight of all wastes from the nuclear weapons complex will be more than $230 billion over the next 75 years.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released a report ( GAO-07-761, June 22) which evaluated DOE's cost estimate for cleanup and disposal of buried transuranic waste, one portion of the over all waste. The report found that DOE estimates is likely to increase dramatically.

Transuranic waste is contaminated by man made elements heavier than uranium, such as plutonium, and is frequently mixed with hazardous waste. It remains dangerous for extremely long periods of time, sometimes hundreds of thousands of years. Prior to 1970, there was no category for transuranic waste and it was disposed of as low-level radioactive waste in unlined and shallow shafts and trenches. According to DOE, they buried approximately 100 Olympic sized swimming pools of transuranic waste in this way.

In 1970, due to growing environmental concerns, DOE was required to stop burring these waste and instead dispose of them in an underground repository, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico.

Subsequently, DOE entered into clean up agreements at the five major sites where transuranic waste had been buried. These sites are: Savannah River Site, Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Hanford in Washington State, Idaho National Laboratory and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

DOE’s preferred disposal method is to leave the transuranic waste in the ground, cover it with a man-made barrier and install other measures to prevent contaminant transport.

However, at both the Hanford and Idaho sites, where the majority of transuranic waste is buried, DOE is required to remove some waste because it is traveling to groundwater. Likewise, contamination from the waste dumps at LANL has been detected in regional surface, ground and drinking water. DOE is still evaluating clean up options for other transuranic waste at the Hanford, Idaho and LANL sites.

The GAO found that cost estimates for the cleanup of these three sites are likely to increase dramatically. This is because DOE assumed that they would not need to excavate much of the waste. For example, at Idaho, where the state is requiring DOE to remove all of the buried waste, DOE has stated that this would increase the cost estimate more than eight times from $1 billion to $8.2 billion.

DOE will leave the transuranic waste buried at the Savannah River and Oak Ridge Sites. The GAO report states that, federal and state regulators agree that this is the best course of action because DOE does not have an accurate inventory of waste and it would be more expensive to remove it in a way that is protective of human health and the environment. Even attempts to characterize the site, DOE says, could result in exposure to workers and releases to the environment.

Community groups support excavation as the only way to protect public health and the environment.

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