General Accounting Office Says Funds for Cleanup of Uranium Enrichment Facilities Insufficient

* The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) this week released a report finding that the funds earmarked for decommissioning and decontamination of Department of Energy (DOE) uranium enrichment facilities will be insufficient. The GAO estimates that cleanup costs will exceed available funding by as much as $5.7 billion.

The report addresses current and future decommissioning, decontamination and environmental monitoring of DOE's three primary uranium enrichment facilities at Paducah, Kentucky, Portsmouth, Ohio and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. These facilities enriched uranium for nuclear weapons and commercial nuclear reactors.

The fund to clean up these facilities has been collected and managed by DOE's Office of Environmental Management since 1992. The funds are derived from an assessment on domestic utilities of up to $150 million annually and from federal government appropriations. They are also used to reimburse private contractors their portion of cleanup costs associated with the sale of enriched uranium to the federal government.

DOE has proposed a plan to reduce cleanup costs at these facilities by developing its risk-based cleanup plan and accelerated cleanup strategy.

The risk-based cleanup plan would allow DOE to clean up facilities based on future land use scenarios. Under the plan, the level of clean up varies from industrial land use, which would allow DOE to abandon much of its buried waste, to residential, which requires more thorough cleanup.

Through accelerated cleanup, DOE would complete cleanup at many of its facilities several years earlier than estimated in order to reduce costs. As a result, DOE has attempted to skirt many radioactive waste regulations. For example, DOE is attempting to reclassify highly radioactive waste so that it may be disposed in repositories designed for lower level waste.

Opponents argue that the plans would allow DOE to abandon much of the buried waste at these facilities.

Cleanup of uranium enrichment facilities would also require that DOE manage the thousands of tons of waste currently sitting aboveground awaiting disposal. Uranium enrichment results in depleted uranium waste, which requires deconversion to a more stable form before it can be disposed. There is currently neither a conversion facility nor a disposal facility for this waste. The cost of this disposal would further increase cleanup costs.

DOE may acquire many additional tons of this waste if the Nuclear Regulatory Commission permits Louisiana Energy Services (LES) to build another uranium enrichment facility in Lea County, New Mexico. To address the problem of waste disposal that thus far has defined the argument against the facility, Senator Pete Domenici proposed that DOE take ownership of LES waste. Although Domenici's proposal failed as part of the 2003 energy bill, the alternative remains central to LES's application.

Opponents argue that DOE is not equipped to manage additional waste. Amy Williams, of Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, said, "DOE cannot address the waste it has created thus far; we cannot expect that LES's waste would be any exception. The only guaranteed waste management plan is to ensure that LES not produce it in the first place.

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