After over 70 years of nuclear weapons production and energy research at hundreds of sites across the country, the Department of Energy (DOE) faces over $500 billion in environmental liabilities associated with cleanup of hazardous contamination and long-term management of these sites. The department’s Office of Legacy Management (LM) is responsible for the portion of these liabilities associated with long-term management of sites after active cleanup has been completed.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently conducted a review into LM’s operations and published its findings in a May 13 report.
LM oversees 100 sites across the country. Depending on the sites’ clean-up standards and intended reuse, LM will likely be managing some sites for centuries. LM’s environmental liability was estimated at $7.35 billion in fiscal year 2019 and, according to LM officials, is expected to grow as LM acquires more sites. Long-term surveillance and maintenance activities associated with radioactive and hazardous waste, such as treating residual groundwater contamination, account for about 40 percent of the costs.
GAO found that LM’s environmental liability has generally remained stable over the past five years. As of September 2019, LM is scheduled to receive 52 additional sites by 2050, and officials expect LM’s environmental liability to grow as a result. Officials said LM is taking steps to reduce its environmental liability at its current sites, such as exploring alternative approaches for reducing residual contamination.
During the review, LM officials identified challenges in providing long-term surveillance and maintenance of sites related to the performance of remedies that contain or reduce contamination, environmental conditions, and new regulatory requirements. GAO notes that LM is taking some actions to address these challenges. For example, at its Rocky Flats, Colorado, site, LM is repairing an aging landfill that was damaged by extreme rainfall events.
However, GAO found LM has not yet planned for how to address challenges at some sites that may require new cleanup work that is not in the scope of LM’s expertise and resources. The watchdog adds that by developing agreements and procedures with the entities that would be responsible for conducting this new cleanup work, LM can help mitigate risks to human health and the environment.
Alongside this, the review also revealed that LM has not made plans to assess the effects of climate change on its sites or to mitigate those effects, as called for in its strategic plan.
Consequently, GAO has made three recommendations to DOE:
- Develop agreements and procedures for identifying and addressing circumstances at LM sites that require new cleanup work beyond the scope of LM’s mission, capabilities, and resources.
- Work with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop agreements and procedures for identifying and addressing circumstances at LM sites that require new cleanup work beyond the scope of LM’s mission, capabilities, and resources.
- Develop plans to assess the effect of climate change on LM’s sites and to mitigate any significant impacts. These plans should incorporate principles from GAO’s Disaster Resilience Framework, as appropriate.
DOE concurred with all recommendations and anticipates to meet the first two by September 30 2021, and the third by September 2022.