American Geological Institute

Government Affairs Program

Hearing on Department of Energy Environmental Management and Nuclear Waste Disposal Programs

Hearing of the Energy and Water Subcommittee
of the House Committee on Appropriations

March 12, 1997

Witness List:

Alvin L. Alm, DOE Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management
Lake H. Barrett, Acting Director, DOE Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management

The following is a brief summary of this hearing on DOE's fiscal year 1998 budget request for these two important programs. With a budget approaching $8 billion a year, the Environmental Management (EM) program handles one of DOE's principal missions -- to clean up the environmental contamination that is the legacy of 50 years of nuclear weapons production during World War II and the Cold War. DOE's Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management is a separate program tasked with disposal of commercial and defense-related high-level nuclear waste, much of it in the form of spent fuel rods from nuclear reactors. OCRWM is overseeing the site suitability assessment of Yucca Mountain, Nevada. This web site also contains a separate update on legislation affecting nuclear waste disposal.

Alm testified that the FY 1998 budget for the EM program was a transitional one as DOE shifts to a ten-year plan that focuses on cleaning up as many sites as possible with ten years in order to reduce long-term costs. Most sites will be cleaned up completely in that time frame, but others such as the Hanford complex in south-central Washington state will take much longer. The Ten-Year Plan embodies three goals: (1) reduce the most serious risks first, (2) reduce mortgage and support costs to achieve cleanup of most sites within a decade, and (3) meet regulatory and safety requirements. In order to achieve these goals and accelerate the pace of cleanup, Alm told the appropriators that he would need stable funding, substantial increases in efficiency and productivity, and privatization. Alm also expressed a goal of reducing contractor support costs to 30%, moving the bulk of funding to actual cleanup.

Barrett testified that "significant progress" had been made toward a national decision on the geologic disposal option for high-level nuclear waste and that "we have found nothing to indicate that the Yucca Mountain site would be unsuitable for a permanent geologic repository." He reported that the tunnel boring machine had completed its trip into the mountain and through the repository level and was now only 200 meters from its exit point. Break-out was expected within the next four weeks. The repository-level exploratory studies facility was being used for in situ tests to determine the response of the repository rock to heat and water "under simulated repository conditions." Barrett testified that the "emphasis of underground work now shifts to investigations of the Ghost Dance Fault and thermal testing." He stated that the FY 1998 budget would "maintain momentum," requesting $325 million for activities at Yucca Mountain (the same amount as last year) and a total of $380 million. The request would be used to "address the remaining scientific and technical uncertainties regarding the construction and operation of a repository at Yucca Mountain. We will apply most of the FY 1998 funding toward completing the repository viability assessment and continuing work on the environmental impact assessment and the license application." Additional funds will be used to conduct non-site specific studies for a possible interim storage facility and to study methods for transporting commercial spent fuel to the repository.

In response to questions from subcommittee chairman Joe McDade (R-PA), Alm stated that the sites which would exceed the ten-year timeframe for cleanup were Hanford, Savannah River, the Idaho National Engineering Laboratory, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Of those, Oak Ridge could be completed within fifteen years but the high-level waste sites at Hanford and Savannah River could take until halfway through the next century. McDade commended Alm for efforts to introduce competition, accelerate cleanup and reduce mortgage costs. Alm emphasized the need for stable funding in order to properly manage the program and effectively negotiate contracts. He reported that after ten years, most sites would be under low-level surveillance and maintenance, the bulk of high-level waste would still be left to clean up, half of the transuranic (TRU) waste would have been shipped to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site near Carlsbad, NM, and mixed and low-level waste would be taken care of. He reported that fixed costs now represented 46% of total costs, a figure that he wanted reduced to 30%. In response to questions about land-use after cleanup, he stated that it would vary from site to site. The plan at Rocky Flats (near the population center of Denver) would be to demolish facilities and move them somewhere else whereas at Savannah River the plan would be to decontaminate facilities and continue to use them.

In response to questions from Rep. Pete Viscloskey (D-IN), Barrett explained vitrification and stated that there were no technicle obstacles to transportation of spent nuclear fuel but there was a lack of the necessary hardware. Asked to compare the US effort with that of other countries, Barrett stated that all have deep geologic disposal as the end result as well as interim storage, but some other countries were pursuing reprocessing of spent fuel.

Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) asked Alm whether cleanup of Rocky Flats could be completed within ten years. Alm replied in the affirmative, citing political consensus, high risk, and high fixed costs as driving forces. In response to another question, he stated that the end date for the ten-year plan was 2006 with the heavy lifting starting in 1998 as efficiency targets are put in place. Asked about WIPP, he stated that DOE hoped to have EPA certification by early 1998. The other remaining obstacles are a RCRA permit and the final environmental impact statement, both under DOE's control. Alm admitted, however, that litigation could be a show-stopper. He stated that opening WIPP was critical to the credibility of the entire EM program and to compliance with agreements made with the State of Idaho and others.

Rep. Chet Edwards (D-TX) asked whether DOE had leeway in determining the end product of cleanup. Alm responded that DOE was subject to RCRA, CERCLA (Superfund), the Defense Nuclear Safety Board, and triparty agreements with states and EPA but otherwise was self-regulating. Edwards asked whether, given the enormous cost at Hanford, it was possible to put a fence around the site then put half the money that would have been spent on cleanup to build a nearby park.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) asked Barrett why he did not see a sense of urgency on the part of DOE given the critical nature of nuclear disposal to the nation. He also asked why the Administration felt that interim storage is a bad idea given that DOE will be unable to accept spent fuel from utilities by the 1998 date established by law. Barrett responded that the Administration was not against interim storage per se, but that the debate was over siting -- when and under what conditions the site should be chosen and whether that site could pre-judge the site suitability decision for the permanent repository.

Contributed by David Applegate, AGI Government Affairs

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Last updated March 17, 1997

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