October 23, 1997

Report raps DOE's efforts to clean up contamination

By Mary Manning

Poor management, lack of cleanup standards, bad data and incompetent engineering prevent the U.S. Department of Energy from creating a sound program to deal with environmental problems at the Nevada Test Site and nationwide, a new report says.

Released today, the report, titled, "Containing the Cold War Mess," was written by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (IEER). It analyzes the flaws in current DOE approaches and outlines a plan for revamping the work.

The federal government opened the Nevada Test Site in 1951 as a nuclear weapons proving ground for aboveground and underground nuclear experiments. President Bush stopped testing in September 1992 and no further nuclear experiments have been conducted there.

"The DOE has done a grave disservice to taxpayers and the communities near its plants by spending $40 billion over the last eight years without a sound plan or standards," IEER President Arjun Makhijani, co-author of the report, said.

"These sites cannot be abandoned as 'national sacrifice areas,"' he said. "That would create unacceptable security concerns, risks of fires and explosions and severe contamination of water resources."

The report notes that two DOE laboratory scientists, at the American Chemical Society meeting last month in Las Vegas, announced plutonium had migrated almost a mile from an underground nuclear weapons crater at the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

For almost 50 years the DOE assumed that plutonium didn't move, said principal author Marc Fioravanti, IEER staff engineer.

"The DOE has concentrated in dumping plutonium from defense activities into WIPP (Waste Isolation Pilot Project in Carlsbad, N.M., not yet opened) and hasn't done enough research at facilities to see whether the radioactivity has moved," he said.

The Test Site could become a dumping ground for the DOE. A decision is expected in June. Plans to send nuclear wastes from Fernald, Ohio, to the Test Site have run into problems with converting the wastes to a stable form before shipping, Fioravanti said.

Basic engineering, design and construction procedures and oversight have been ignored at Fernald, the report concluded.

The study gives credit to the DOE for some investigations since 1989 that defined the scope of environmental management risks within its national complex. It also has succeeded in reducing short-term risks such as the problem of hydrogen gas building up in one Hanford, Wash., high-level nuclear waste tank.

Makhijani and Fioravanti in the study urge President Clinton to appoint a commission to recommend a new structure for DOE's environmental management.

Three things are crucial to this approach, Makhijani said. "First, it must do more than put a new nameplate on the same flawed process," he said.

"Second, there must be a set of stringent, national cleanup standards that are independently enforced and third, there must be external peer review of major projects."