Federal Waste Site Plan Unconvincing, Says Report

The federal government's plan to rely on long-term stewardship to safeguard contaminated nuclear weapons sites is problematic, said a report from the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council.

The federal government's plan to rely on long-term stewardship to safeguard contaminated nuclear weapons sites at this point is problematic, said a report from the National Academy of Sciences National Research Council.

Details of the 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 who 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 periodically revisited."

Nearly 150 sites in 27 states, including the massive Hanford reservation in Washington state, are contaminated.

DOE has concluded that even after planned remediation activities are completed -- or found to be infeasible -- at these waste sites, 109 of them will never be clean enough for unrestricted use.

The report said, that DOE should begin immediately to plan for a broader institutional management framework that equally balances containment reduction, physical isolation of waste, and custodial activities such as surveillance of waste migration, changes in landscape, and human activity around the site.

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, concluded the committee.

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 containment isolation will eventually fail.

"When institutional controls and other stewardship activities are required because of the fallibility of isolation, a precautionary approach should be adopted in which containment reduction is emphasized to address risks to human health and the environment," said the report.

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, noted the report.

"Scientific breakthroughs outside DOE need to be monitored as well for their relevance to further reducing risks associated with residual contaminants," said the committee. "Equal attention should be given to social research that can be applied to the institutional and organizational aspects of this approach."

The committee said, DOE should frankly acknowledge gaps in its technical capabilities and organizational deficiencies when explaining long-term institutional management plans to the public. In addition, the scientific basis for decisions should be clear, and the public should be actively engaged in the development of stewardship plans.

by Virginia Sutcliffe

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