The Problem of Cleaning Up the Remains of Nuclear Facilities

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1977-06-16.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                         DOCUMENT RESUME

02463 -   A1752783]

The Problem of Cleaning Up the Pemains of Nuclear FPcilities.
June 16, 1977. 11 pp.

Testimony before the House Committee on Science and Technology:
Environment and the Atmosphere Subcommittee; by Monte Canfield,
Jr., Director, Energy and Minerals Div.
Issue Area: Energy: Making Nuclear Fission a Substantial Energy
    Source (1608).
Budget Function: Natural Resources, Environment, and Energy:
    Energy (305).
Organization Concerned: Energy Research and Development
    Administration; Nuclear Regulatory ommission.
Congressional Relevance: House Committee on Science and
    Technology: Environment and the Atmosphere Subccmittee.
Authority: H.R. 6181 (95th Cong.).
         When nuclear facilities are shut down, cleaning up the
remains presents special problems because of radioactivity.
Responsibility for tis cleaning u rests primarily with the
Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) and the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), with additional help from
the Enfironmental Protection Agency and the states. ERDA has not
given enough attention to its facilities that are now obsolete,
which have been accumulating. ERDA estimated the cost for
decommissioning (disposing of) present excess facilities at $25
to $30 million a year for the next 100 years. GAO doeL not
believe hat ERDA has sufficient data to support this estimate.
NRC has done little to provide guidance for decommissioning
commercial nuclear facilities. It does not require owners of
most nuclear facilities to cover costs of future
decommissioring, and thus costs could be assumed by Federal or
State overnments. Questions that have not been answered by
Federal agencies are how much it will cost to decommission
facilities, who will pay costs, and how many facilities are
involved. Other questions which must be answered relate to
methods for decommissioning, possible changes in radiation
standards, and the future role of nuclear power. Congress should
designate one lead Federal agency to approve and monitor an
overall decommissioning strategy. Although it was thought that
ERDA should continue research and development efforts, NRC was
considered uniquely suited for the lead role. (HTW)
                          WASHINGTON, D.C. 20548
                                                  FOR RFLEASE ON DELIVERY
                                                  Expected at 9:30 a.m.
                                                  Thursday, June 16, 1977
                               STATEMENT OF
                       MONTE CANFIELD, JR., DIRECTOR
                       ENERGY AND MINERALS DIVISION
                                BEFORE THE
                           OF NUCLEAR FACILITIES

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
    We appreciate the opportunity to be here today to discuss, in
connection with H.R. 6181, our report entitled "Cleaning Up the Remains
of Nuclear Facilities--A Multi-Billion Dollar Problem" (EMD-77-46,
June 16, 1977). We are issuing this report today. When we learned c'
H.R. 6181 and these hearings several weeks ago, we were immersed in an
evaluation of Federal efforts to clean up nuclear facilities.    Our schedule
called for reporting on this evaluation several months from today. However,
so as to maximize our contribution to this hearing, we have accelerated our
work and, in some areas, reduced its scope in order to issue our report.
We feel, however, that our report deals with the issues in enough detail
to be useful.
     As with every industrv,   nuclear facilities and equipment may be shut
down, replaced, or become obsolete.    Cleaning up the remains of nuclear
activities, however, presents special problems because of radioactivity
and contamination which can endanger public health and safety. Some
radioactivity remains hazardous for thousands of years making final and
absolute disposal at best a difficult and expensive task.
     In short, the problem of protecting the public from the hazards of
radiation lingering at inactive nuclear facilities needs Federal attention
if a strategy for finding a solution is to be developed. A strategy t,
clean up these privately and federally owned nuclear facilities, which
continue to accumulate, cannot be developed until basic questions or the
magnitude of the problem, such as costs, radioactivity and timing, have
been answered.
     Responsibility for cleaning up inactive nuclear facilities rests
primarily with two Federal agencies, with additional help from a third
and the 50 States:
    --The Eergy Research and Development Administration is
       responsible for d;sposing of, or decommissioning, the
      radioactive facilities itowns.
    --The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is responsible for
      regulating private users of nuclear materials, including
      powerplants, uranium mills and processors of nuclear
    --The 50 States have traditionally been responsible for
      controlling the hazards of using accelerators and radium.
    --The Eivironmental Protection Agency has overall respon-
      sibility for issuing standards for the protection of
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       the environment from all sources of radiation.    But to
       do this itmust have cooperation from the other two
       agencies identified.
     Radiation is encroaching on man's environment.     Radiation has become
a household word with almost aily news of its dangers.      For example, the
press and testimony before congressional contittees discuss radiation
hazards associated with high-leve; radioactive waste using highly-charged
words such as "impossible solutions" and "doomscay issues."
     The two types of hazards that could be involved incleaning up a
nuclear facility are induced radioactivity ad surface contamination.
Induced radioactivity results from a nuclear reaction and is embedded
in the equipment or material roming into ontact with the nuclear reaction.
This induced activity can remain dangerous for thousands of years.     For
this reason, a structure containing induced radioactivity should be dis-
mantled at some point in time before deterioration of the structure begins.
This is essential to preclude radioactivity from entering the environment.
     Surface contamination results from facilities or equipment coming
into contact with radicactive material.   As opposed to induced activity,
material having surface contamination can often be cleaned up by scrubbing
and washing.
     In the jargon, the words decontamination and decommissioning are often
used indiscussions of disposing of nuclear structures.      Decontamination
denctes the proces' of cleaning up surface contamination. Decomnissioning
indicates the closing or shutting down of a facility with some actions
taken to prevent--at least temporarily--health and safety problems.     It
does not necessarily denote a final and absolute solution.
     There are various types of nuclear acilities that comprise the
decommissioning problem, including reactors, nuclear fuel fabrication
facilities, uranium mills, nuclear fuel reprocessing plants, and
accel eri tors.
      ERDA has not paid enough attention to its facilities that are now
obsolete.    It has not compiled relevant details of the facilities itowns
--obsolete or operating--i-hich would permit it to assess the magnitude
of the decommissioning problems they pose.
      Funds for decommissioning have been used for several specific
projects.   One project involved sites used 20 to 30 years ago to develop
the first atomic bomb and for other early nuclear projects.     These sites
had been released for unrestricted use by the general public      However,
a concentrated effort is being made now to identify any of these sites
thet are still contaminated and to do what isnecessary to eliminate
remaining hazards.
     Meanwhile, ERDA's facilities in need of decommissioning have been
accumulating.     Reliable estimates have not been made but it seems probable
that the cost to decommission federally-owned nuclear facilities will run
into billions of dollars.     Ina memorandum to the Office of Management and
Budget, ERDA estimated itwould cost $25 to $30 million a year for the
next l00 years--or a total of 2.5 to $3 billion--to decommission just
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those facilities that are now excess. However, we do not believe this
is a credible estimate because:
     --ERDA does not have sufficient data to support this estimate;
     --ERDA ds not have the information necessary to assess the
       magnitude of the problem posed by its excess facilities;
     --ERDA lacks similar information for its operational facilities;
     --an ERDA contractor estimated in 1972 that it could cost as
       much as $4 billion to decommission the largest of ERDA's
       26 facilities alone (exclusive of waste); and
     --ERDA has not developed cost estimates for disposal of
       71,000,000 gallons of high-level waste it has. The dis-
       posal of 600,000 gallons of high-level waste at West
       Valley, New York, has been estimated to cost as much as
       $565 million.
     Almost a quarter of a century has passed since commercial nuclear
activities began, and NRC has done relatively little to plan for and to
provide .lidance for decommissioning commercial nuclear facilities.
Studies sponsored by NRC on acceptable alternative methods to decommission
are several years from completion.   Itdoes not require owners of nuclear
facilities--except for uranium mills--to develop plans or make financial
commitments to cover the cost for future decommissioning.     Consequently,
the true cost of nuclear power is not being reflected in the cost to the
consumer of nuclear power.   Without this financial commitment, the Federal
 or State Governments can be asked to pay for problems that rightfully
 should be paid by private industry.
      Situations where this has happened, or may, have already arisen.
 For example, the Federal Government will pay about $85 million to clean
 up residues from inoperative uranium mills that were privately owned.
 Also, as much as $600 million may be needed to decommission a privately
 owned nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at West Valley, New York. The
 State Government is legally responsible for cleaning up the plant but
asked the Federal Government for assistance.   In a case at rlinton,
Tennessee, the Federal and State Governments shared the cost--approximately
 llO0,000--to decontaminate a facility that the owners walked away from
1971. A conference of State officials has recommended that States protect
themselves from financial loss should a company not be able to pay to
decommission its activities. However, only seven States require some
form of bonding or advance accumulation of funds for decommissioning.
     Although cost estimates to decommission private facilities have not
been developed by NRC, a recently completed study by a private organizat!io
estimated the cst to decommission a commercial nuclear reactor to be
much as $39 million, No cost data, except for wide-ranging estimates,
isavailable for decommissioning other facilities, such as uranium mills
or fuel fabrication plant:.
     Thus far, I have tried to highlight first order questions which,
unfortunately, have not been answered by the responsible Federal agencies:

                                    - 6-
     --How much will it cost to decmmission nuclear facilities?
     --Who will pay these costs?
     --How many facilities need or will need to be decommissioned?
     I will now discuss other important questions which must be answered
to develop an acceptable decommissioning strategy.
     NRC permits tree alternatives for decommissioning a power reactor.
Two of these alternatives call for either "entombing" or "mothballing"
a reactor and then providing perpetual security, radiological surveys,
and maintenance of the facility.   These alternatives are questionable
because of the perpetual custody feature. The third alternative NRC
permits is total dismantlement as soon as the reactor is shut down. A
serious disadvantage of this alternative isthe radiation hazard to the
workers doing the dismantling.
     The most feasible approach seems to be a combination wherein the
reactor is permitted to "cool down" for 70 to 110 years and is then
    There is an historical trend for increased conservatism in radiation
standards. These stand:rs pla      ,,jr
                                   ,,   role in determining the ground-
rules and procedures for decommissioning a fccility.   If the trend con-
tinues, the rules that we now use to goverl decommissionirg might be
considered unsafe years rom now.
     Until rcently, the role of nuclear power as an electrical generating
source for the future has been a clear and unchallenged Government policy.
Light water reactors, and then breeder reactors with their ability to
replenish their own fuel, have been viewed as long-term, almost perpetual,
energy sources.
     The President is now trying to implement an energy program that would
change the future o nuclear power.    It is his policy to (1)defer thp
U.S. commitment to advanced nuclear technologies that are based on the
use of plutonium and (2)use more of the current light water reactors to
meet our needs.
     Light water reactors   equire a supply of natural uranium. How much
natural uranium exists is a major question that, when answered, dictates
the viability cf light water reactors as an energy source.   Estimates of
U.S. uranium resources ange between 1.3 and 3.7 million tons. This
amount of natural uranium could fuel about 250 to 500 large light water
reactors for 40 years. Sixty-four reactors are now licensed to operate.
The number that will be operating in the future is,of course, speculative
but estimates for the number expected inthe year 2000 range fronm less
than 200 to several hundred more than that.
    Obviously, use of light water reactors cannot be expected to continue
indefinitely.   If another generation of nuclear reactors cannot be
developed or isnot needed because another energy source, such as solar
                                   - 8 -
 energy, has been introduced, the end of light water reactors could also
 be the end of the commercial nuclear power industry.
      The possibility of this indust'y ending raises questions as to
 whether there will be nuclear-related organizations, nuclear equipment,
 and individuals expert in the nuclear field that would be capable of
 dealing with the decommissioning and decontamination problems that could
remain for about 100 years after the last reactor is shut down.
     The problems that nuclear-related operations leave behind are
increasing because of the expansion of nuclear technologies. ERDA has
accumulated a large number of excess facilities which will involve a
monumental clean-up effort. At this point in time, it lacks the necessary
information to even plan this task. It does not know the radiation
contamination problems at its facilities, the decommissioning methods
that should be used, the corresponding costs, or priorities. ERDP has
begun to gather this information at one of its reservations, but this
only the beginning.
     While elimination of these excess facilities is important, it is
also important that ERDA begin to consider and plan for decommissioning
inall future projects.   This requires that decommissioning costs be
recognized at the outset of a project.
     Similarly, NRC, which has responsibility n the commercial side,
has not developed cost estimates, acceptable  .hods, or standards needed
by industry to plan decommissioning or disposal of their facilities.
                                   -9g -
 has not paid much attention to one of the biggest problems that may
 confront the public in the future--that is,who will pay the cost of
decommissioning nuclear power reactors.    It has not made any plans or
established any requirements for advanced accumulation of funds for
decommissioning reactors or any facilities it licenses, with the exception
of uranium mills.
     We believe the cost of decommissioning should be paid by the
current beneficiaries, not by future generations.   Just as ERDA should
consider decofrmissioning costs in its projects, private companies have
an obligation to accumulate funds for decommissioning during the life of
their projects. NRC should make advance planning for decommissioning
mandatory at the time of licensing, including provision for funding.
     If the States are to maintain their responsibility over selected
nuclear activities they must be made aware of the problems with decom-
missioning and be encouraged to adopt legislation that will assure that
proper decommissioning and decontamination is carried out.
     Answers to basic questions are missing which preclude developing a
strategy for solving a problem that we are losing ground on.   The rolution
may very well be expensive--but the expense should be known so that it can
be planned for and paid for by the respnnsible parties.   In our report, we
make several recommendations to ERDA and NRC aimed at developing the
necessary information to help answer these questions.
     Although the task of cleaning up the present problem and peventing
future problems will involve a concentrated effort by all those involved,

                                  - 10 -
 the Federal sector must lead the way and set the example.     In the past,
 the Federal Government has been shor'tsighted in its approach to solving
 decommissioning problems. The Federal agencies must now view decomn,'s-
 sioning with an eye toward the future, particularly in the dreas of
 firancial responsibility radiation standards, and capability to perform
 the needed decommissioning tasks.
      H.R. 6181 directs ERDA to comprehensively study decommissioning.
The study should provide basic information needed to develop a strategy
to solve decommissioning problems.
     Because of the magnitude, cost, and time-already lost, the Congress
should designate one lead Federal agency to approve and monitor an overall
decommissioning strategy. ERDA should continue its research and develop-
ment efforts aimed at finding alternatives for decommissioning and decon-
tamination of nuclear facilities. However, we believe NRC isuniquely
suited for the lead role because of its charter to independently regulate
cormercial nuclear activities to assure public health and safety. This
position is consistent with a previous GAO report and testimony wherein
we advocated independent assessments by the Commi-;ion of certain ERDA
operations.  In addition, placing this responsibility with the Commission
would in our view, add to the credibility of Federal regulation over
nuclear energy.
     Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement.     We would be
glad to answer any questions you may have at this time.
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