On Wednesday, the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a 49-page report seemingly largely criticizing the Department of Energy’s attempts to clean up various environmentally contaminated sites around the country, all relics of the nuclear Cold War, including the former Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant in Piketon.
“The Department of Energy is tasked with cleaning up waste from Cold War nuclear weapons production, much of which is hazardous or radioactive,” GAO writes in an introduction to the report. “The department’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) estimates that future work could cost at least $377 billion—$109 billion more than last year’s estimate.”
The report largely concerns itself with what it describes as the seemingly ever-growing cost of environmental cleanups at nuclear sites around the country.
GAO, on its website, describes itself as providing “Congress, the heads of executive agencies, and the public with timely, fact-based, non-partisan information that can be used to improve government and save taxpayers billions of dollars. Our work is done at the request of congressional committees or subcommittees or is statutorily required by public laws or committee reports.”
GAO argues the dollars needed by EM “largely reflect estimates of future costs to clean up legacy radioactive tank waste and contaminated facilities and soil. From fiscal years 2011 through 2018, EM’s environmental liability grew by about $214 billion—outpacing its cleanup spending of about $45 billion for that time period,” the report reads in part.
The GAO report alleges “contract and project management problems and other factors” greatly contribute to cost increases. For example, GAO blames a $130 billion liability increase at the infamous Hanford site in the state of Washington almost entirely on contract and project management problems.
Including Hanford and Portsmouth, GAO looked at 16 environmental cleanup sites around the country, including locations in California, Nevada, Kentucky and Tennessee among others.
“Each of the 16 cleanup sites sets its own priorities, which makes it hard to ensure that the greatest health and environmental risks are addressed first,” GAO continues. The report goes on to argue DOE needs to set standards across the board for all contaminated sites.
“(EM) relies primarily on individual sites to locally negotiate cleanup activities and establish priorities. GAO’s analysis of DOE documents identified instances of decisions involving billions of dollars where such an approach did not always balance overall risks and costs.
“For example, two EM sites had plans to treat similar radioactive tank waste differently, and the costs at one site—Hanford—may be tens of billions more than those at the other site… Without a strategy that sets national priorities and describes how DOE will address its greatest risks, EM lacks assurance that it is making the most cost-effective cleanup decisions across its sites.”
According to EM documents, the report reads, EM’s cleanup responsibilities include
– storing and treating about 90 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste located in nearly 240 large underground tanks at sites across the country
-remediating millions of cubic meters of soil and more than 1 billion gallons of groundwater
-preparing and disposing of 2,400 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel and about 21 metric tons of surplus highly enriched uranium materials
-deactivating and decommissioning about 1,700 excess facilities, some of which are highly contaminated.
The GAO report states DOE agreed with all three of its major recommendations, which, as previously indicated, include better coordination of planning across all sites. DOE’s public affairs office did not return several requests for comment.
Stephen Schwartz is a nonresident fellow with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and the author of at least one book on the arms race and its ramifications. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists describes itself as informing the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons and other issues.
Schwartz said the GAO report does not really deal with how well DOE or EM are meeting their environmental mandate.
“In some cases, they do a good job… But overall, it’s a pretty mixed record,” Schwartz contends.
Schwartz said what is most frustrating to him is the situation largely could have been avoided if the government had followed its own rules or even had rules in the midst of the Cold War and the arms race. He said in some cases, the government’s thought process seemed to be to bury contaminated materials and just walk away.
As result, Schwartz added, DOE now has a very difficult job cleaning up radioactive Cold War messes, a job which obviously never really has been done before. He said one problem is DOE has never made cleanup of various sites a priority. He noted the GAO report states while environmental liabilities are on the rise, funding for EM has “essentially flatlined.”
“The fundamental question is, are we willing to clean this up, do we have the will to clean this up?” Schwartz said.
Closer to home, one vocal critic of DOE’s mission to clean up the Piketon site, Piketon Village Councilman Dennis Foreman said he isn’t sure the GAO report will have much effect. But he added fighting DOE is a bit like fighting medieval armor.
“We just sort of have to keep chipping away at it,” Foreman said.
The entire GAO report can be found at: www.gao.gov/products/GAO-19-28