The Department of Energy should consider a nationwide triage system for cleaning up environmental contamination at Hanford and other sites, as questions are raised about whether current plans are economically sustainable, according to a new report.
That and other suggestions could have substantial effects on DOE contractor work forces, possibly including those in the Tri-Cities, according to a new DOE Office of Inspector General report on DOE management challenges. The report included suggestions to cut costs in the face of likely federal budget reductions.
Triaging cleanup to concentrate on high risk work and other suggestions in the report are intended to provide a starting point for any conversation, according to the report.
But "we are mindful of the fact that they represent approaches which could be both difficult to implement and highly controversial," the report said.
At no other time in recent memory has there been such a broad and bipartisan consensus on the need to reduce federal spending and address the nation's mounting debt, the report said.
"While the elements of various budget reduction plans under consideration differ on key details, dramatic change appears likely, and the impact on the department's operations could be equally dramatic," it said.
Now the costs of environmental cleanup at DOE sites, including Hanford, are largely driven by legal and other agreements negotiated at each site, the report said. At Hanford, that includes the legally binding Tri-Party Agreement, which was negotiated by DOE and its regulators, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology.
In many cases, agreements were reached after complex, painstaking negotiations over many years, and parts of the agreements, such as a consent decree at Hanford, are enforced by the courts, the report said.
"Modifying these agreements would be a very costly and time-consuming process and would, understandably, be extremely unpopular with a variety of constituencies," the report said. "However, the current strategy may not be sustainable if the department's remediation budget suffers major reductions."
It recommended considering "a form of environmental remediation triage" that would provide federal dollars only for high risk activities that threaten health and safety or further environmental degradation.
That could include cleaning up some land only to industrial standards, if that is consistent with EPA guidance and DOE land-use policies, the report said.
To ensure that risk drives priorities and spending choices rather than local or regional influences, DOE could retain a respected outside group such as the National Academy of Sciences to rank and rate environmental cleanup requirements nationwide, the report said.
DOE now spends about $6 billion a year on environmental cleanup, with more than a third of that typically spent at Hanford. Its unfunded cleanup liability nationwide is about $250 billion, with a recent lifecycle analysis for Hanford estimating costs to complete Hanford cleanup at $115 billion.
Jane Hedges, the state's nuclear waste program manager, said she has many questions about the proposal, including whether enough is known about the extent and other characteristics of environmental contamination at Hanford to make decisions based on risk. Characterizing contamination at Hanford is ongoing work.
She also questioned whether cleaning up some areas to only industrial standards saves money long-term. Continued monitoring would be required and the federal government could be responsible for natural resource damages.
In addition the state of Washington owns resources, such as ground water, that must be cleaned up or protected from more pollution from contaminated soil above it. She questioned how those cleanup decisions could be made without local and state input.
The report also included proposals to complete an all-encompassing review of DOE research and development work every four years to guide spending; to consolidate or realign the nation's DOE laboratories; and to evaluate DOE physical security, possibly federalizing protective forces.
If cost reductions are to be substantive, they will include contractor operations, the report said.
Washington, plus New Mexico, Idaho, South Carolina and Tennessee, have contractor operations that are among "the largest employers and most potent economic generators in those jurisdictions," the report said. Hanford now employs about 10,000 people and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory employs about 4,500 people in Richland.
"Any change to the organizational structure of the department's complex will have a significant economic impact on those and other states and localities," it said.