Experts criticize how cleanup is prioritized at sites like Hanford

The Department of Energy lacks a formal method for making sure that environmental cleanup decisions across its nationwide complex consider risk reduction to people and the environment, according to a new report.

Over the last 25 years several independent reviews have found that DOE would benefit from adopting “risk-informed” approaches to decisions on cleanup to better address risks given its limited budget, said a Government Accountability Office report.

Such an approach would help officials consider trade-offs among risk, cost and other factors in the face of uncertainty — such as how well different technologies might perform — and differing perspectives among the public and other agencies, the GAO report said.

The report was written at the request of members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, including Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore.

The GAO considered past reports and studies and also collaborated with the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to select experts on risk to weigh in as it developed a proposed series of steps for making cleanup decisions that are informed by risk.

The steps could be used for selecting a cleanup approach at a single site, such as the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, or to prioritize cleanup activities across the nation and decide how money should be allocated among sites.

High-risk cleanup sites

DOE has completed environmental cleanup at 91 of 107 sites, but 16 remain and some, like Hanford, are among the most challenging.

The latest DOE cost estimate for Hanford at the start of this year put the cost of remaining cleanup there at $323 billion to $677 billion.

Capture dOE map.PNG
Courtesy GAO

Hanford is contaminated with radioactive and hazardous chemical waste from the past production of nearly two-thirds of the plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program.

The GAO has designated the federal government’s environmental liabilities as a high-risk area since 2017 because of the large and increasing estimated costs of cleanup at DOE sites.

“We found that because of the lack of complete information and the often inconsistent approach to making cleanup decisions, federal agencies cannot always address their environmental liabilities in ways that balance the benefits of reducing risks to human health and the environment with the costs of achieving those reductions,” the report said.

It predicted that federal budgets for cleanup work would become increasingly restrictive, making it more important that cost-effective cleanup solutions be picked.

Report: Ask judge to change orders

The GAO report conceded that DOE has entered into agreements with regulators, including the state of Washington, for cleanup requirements and deadlines.

There are also federal court orders and settlement agreements that DOE must follow, like the consent decree setting deadlines for emptying some of Hanford’s leak-prone waste tanks and treating the waste for disposal.

But agreements and court orders can be amended if the parties or a judge agrees, the GAO report said.

The 580-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation is contaminated from the past production of plutonium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program. Courtesy Department of Energy

Seeking waivers or changes from regulatory agencies would help keep the decision process open to creative solutions, experts told the GAO.

The framework the GAO developed for making decisions that consider risk would include steps such as analyzing options, picking a preferred option and then evaluating it.

The public and interested parties, such as environmental groups, should be given a say. The goal should be incorporating their viewpoints and seeking their acceptance of the decision-making process rather than obtaining their agreement with a final decision, according to the experts.

DOE responded to the report, agreeing that risk is an important factor to consider in making cleanup decisions.

But it also pointed out that it must follow laws and regulations while working with each site’s regulators and the public to make cleanup plans.

“DOE is committed to achieving the desired outcome of directing available resources to best address human health and environmental risks,” said Ike White, senor adviser for environmental management to the under secretary for science, in DOE’s reply to the GAO.

Senior staff writer Annette Cary covers Hanford, energy, the environment, science and health for the Tri-City Herald. She’s been a news reporter for more than 30 years in the Pacific Northwest.