March 4, 2019

Breakthrough Solutions and Technologies Needed to Speed Cleanup of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Sites

WASHINGTON – A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends changes in the way that the U.S. Department of Energy manages science and technology (S&T) development in order to accelerate the cleanup of radioactive waste and contaminated soil, groundwater, and facilities at U.S. nuclear weapons sites.

A portion of DOE’s technology development should focus on breakthrough solutions and technologies that can substantially reduce schedules, risks, and uncertainties in the cleanup, says Independent Assessment of Science and Technology for the Department of Energy’s Defense Environmental Cleanup Program. This effort should be managed by ARPA-E, a DOE division that has a record of investing in innovative solutions for complex technical challenges; it would require substantial new funding, along with a different model for managing research and stimulating innovation.

In addition, DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM)  – the office that is conducting the cleanup -- should implement a process for identifying, developing, and deploying new knowledge and technologies that can aid its cleanup efforts, the report says.

DOE-EM is responsible for cleaning up 107 sites in 31 states and one territory that were used for nuclear weapons development, testing, and related activities during the Manhattan Project and Cold War. The cleanup program began in 1989 and has, over the past three decades, cleaned up 91 sites at a cost of about $170 billion. DOE-EM projects that it will spend at least another 50 years and $377 billion to complete its cleanup of the 16 remaining sites.

The new report says that these time and cost estimates are highly uncertain – and probably low – because of significant remaining technical challenges and uncertainties, and also because additional sites and facilities may be added to the cleanup program in the future. DOE-EM should obtain an independent assessment of the cleanup program’s life-cycle costs and schedules from a government engineering organization – such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers – that is specifically focused on identifying key remaining technical risks and uncertainties. DOE-EM should then use this assessment to re-evaluate the major challenges it faces and make any necessary adjustments to its S&T development program.

Currently, DOE-EM’s management of S&T development is ad hoc and uncoordinated, the report says. Most DOE-EM-related S&T development activities are focused on individual sites, are driven and managed by contractors, and have a short-term emphasis on addressing technical challenges in existing cleanup projects. DOE-EM headquarters has a limited role in selecting, managing, and coordinating this site-based S&T to ensure that it meets the cleanup program’s needs. The report recommends that DOE-EM design and implement a S&T management process for identifying, prioritizing, selecting, developing, and deploying the new knowledge and technologies needed to address its cleanup challenges.

The successful cleanup of the large, complex Rocky Flats site near Denver showed that technology development and deployment can have major impacts in accelerating schedules and reducing costs, the report notes. The remaining cleanup sites – which include large, complex sites such as Hanford in Washington state, the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and the Oak Ridge Reservation in Tennessee – provide an opportunity for S&T to have similar impacts.

The report identifies seven examples of technologies and alternative approaches that could substantially reduce costs and speed cleanup schedules – these include changes in waste chemistry and nuclear properties to facilitate treatment and disposal, and changes in human involvement in cleanup activities to increase efficiencies and reduce worker risks. Some of these examples of technologies and alternative approaches might become the focus of the ARPA-E–managed effort to develop breakthrough technologies and solutions.

The study, conducted by the Committee on Independent Assessment of Science and Technology for the Department of Energy’s Defense Environmental Cleanup Program, was sponsored by U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Environmental Management. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The National Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln. 

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