Date: Aug. 7, 2000 Contacts: Bill Kearney, Media Relations Associate Shelley Solheim, Media Relations Assistant (202) 334-2138; e-mail <email@example.com>
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Long-Term Management of DOE 'Legacy' Waste Sites Presents a Significant Challenge
WASHINGTON -- The government's intended reliance on long-term stewardship to oversee its contaminated nuclear weapons sites is, at this point, problematic, says a new report from the National Academies' National Research Council. Details of the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) stewardship plans have yet to be specified, adequate funding has not been assured, and there is no convincing evidence that institutional controls -- such as surveillance of radioactive and other hazardous wastes left at sites, security fences, and deeds restricting land use -- will prove reliable over the long run.
"Many weaknesses in institutional controls and other stewardship activities arise from institutional fallabilities," said Thomas Leschine, associate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Understanding this and developing a highly reliable organizational model that anticipates failure while taking advantage of new opportunities for further remediation and isolation of contaminants remains a significant challenge for DOE."
"Moreover," added committee vice chair Mary English, research leader at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, "DOE must undertake long-term institutional management of residually contaminated sites with the expectation that plans developed today will need to be periodically revisited."
Nearly 150 sites around the country are contaminated, a nagging reminder of the nuclear arms race. DOE has concluded that even after planned remediation activities are completed -- or found to be infeasible -- at these so-called "legacy" waste sites, 109 of them will never be clean enough for unrestricted use. The department recently established the Office of Long-Term Stewardship to protect indefinitely the people and environment surrounding these sites -- which are located in 27 states, Puerto Rico, and territorial islands in the Pacific.
DOE should begin immediately to plan for a broader institutional management framework that equally balances contaminant reduction, physical isolation of waste, and custodial activities such as surveillance of waste migration, changes in the landscape, and human activity around the site, the committee said. Currently, DOE defines stewardship as something that begins after "closure" of a site when remediation is deemed finished, but ideally it should be considered while remediation strategies are still being formulated. The Office of Long-Term Stewardship has just begun its planning, though it is required by law to report to Congress on DOE's responsibilities by October 1.
Because the long-term behavior of contaminants in the environment is unpredictable and physical barriers may break down at some point, the committee urged DOE to develop its stewardship plans under the assumption that contaminant isolation eventually will fail. When institutional controls and other stewardship activities are required because of the fallibility of isolation, a precautionary approach should be adopted in which contaminant reduction is emphasized to address risks to human health and the environment.
No "one size fits all" formula exists for successful institutional management and decisions are likely to be made under conditions of considerable uncertainty, the reports notes. The best long-term management strategy overall appears to be one which avoids foreclosing future options, takes contingencies into account, and considers seriously the prospects of failure. It needs to be forward-looking because today's scientific knowledge and institutional capabilities do not provide much confidence that containment of sites with residual risks will function as expected indefinitely.
The long-term institutional management approach outlined in the report also calls for periodic re-evaluation of plans and research and development of new remediation technologies. Scientific breakthroughs outside DOE need to be monitored as well for their relevance to further reducing risks associated with residual contaminants. Equal attention should be given to social research that can be applied to the institutional and organizational aspects of this approach.
DOE officials view the long-term stewardship efforts that they have proposed so far -- which are likely to rely heavily on surveillance, maintenance, and record keeping -- as relatively inexpensive compared with the cost for initial remediation. But real costs cannot be estimated with any confidence since failures are likely to occur, the committee said. The goal of long-term institutional management should be to anticipate such failures and minimize the costs and risks associated with them.
Ongoing surveillance and environmental monitoring need to go beyond the boundaries of a site, the committee emphasized. For example, DOE has begun annual checking of building permit requests around the Oak Ridge Reservation site in Tennessee after a nearby golf course attempted to use water from a contaminated aquifer. In addition, proposed land-use changes inside a site, perhaps for the "reindustrialization" of the former facility for a new manufacturing purpose, need to be carefully considered.
DOE should frankly acknowledge gaps in its technical capabilities and organizational deficiencies when explaining long-term institutional management plans to the public, the committee said. In addition, the scientific basis for decisions should be clear, and the public should be actively engaged in the development of stewardship plans.
The report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides scientific and technical advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.