oversight

Radioactive Waste: Interior's Continuing Review of the Proposed Transfer of the Ward Valley Waste Site

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-07-15.

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

                  United States General Accounting Office

GAO               Report to Congressional Requesters




July 1997
                  RADIOACTIVE
                  WASTE
                  Interior’s Continuing
                  Review of the
                  Proposed Transfer of
                  the Ward Valley Waste
                  Site




GAO/RCED-97-184
                   United States
GAO                General Accounting Office
                   Washington, D.C. 20548

                   Resources, Community, and
                   Economic Development Division

                   B-276538

                   July 15, 1997

                   Congressional Requesters

                   Seventeen years ago, the Congress directed states to take responsibility
                   for disposing of commercially generated low-level radioactive waste. Since
                   that time, however, only one state—California—has authorized the
                   construction and operation of a disposal facility. The facility would be
                   located in Ward Valley, California, on federally owned land in the Mojave
                   Desert; however, construction depends on the Department of the Interior’s
                   sale of the land to the state. Interior announced in February 1996 that
                   before it would make a land-transfer decision, it would conduct additional
                   tests at the site and prepare a second supplement to an environmental
                   impact statement. A supplement to an environmental impact statement is
                   required when significant new environmental information becomes
                   available and may be prepared at an agency’s discretion to further the
                   purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA).
                   Interior’s measures are primarily intended to address public concerns
                   about radioactive contamination of the Colorado River, which is about 20
                   miles east of the site at its closest point.

                   Concerned that further delay might inhibit progress on similar disposal
                   facilities in other states and threatens the continuing viability of the
                   federal government’s policy on the disposal of low-level radioactive
                   wastes, you asked us to determine (1) what sources of information Interior
                   relied on in deciding to prepare a second supplemental environmental
                   impact statement and in selecting issues to address in the supplement and
                   (2) whether the selected issues had been considered in earlier state or
                   federal proceedings and, if so, whether they are being reconsidered on the
                   basis of significant new information. This report also discusses Interior’s
                   reasons for preparing the supplement.


                   In deciding to prepare a second supplement and the issues it should
Results in Brief   address, Interior relied primarily on (1) a report by the National Academy
                   of Sciences on the proposed disposal facility at Ward Valley and (2) new
                   information and analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey (an agency
                   within Interior) on the migration of radioactive materials in the soil from a
                   now-retired disposal facility at Beatty, Nevada. In selecting other issues to
                   address in the supplement, Interior relied on the comments of
                   environmental groups, Native American tribes, and others.




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             Eleven of the 13 issues that Interior is addressing in the new supplement,
             such as the effects of a disposal facility at Ward Valley on Native
             Americans, had been considered in California’s licensing process and in
             previous environmental statements prepared by the state and Interior’s
             Bureau of Land Management. The other two issues—the findings and
             recommendations of the Academy and the information on the Beatty
             facility—are new.

             In announcing that it would prepare the new supplement, Interior gave as
             its reasons an impasse with California over land-transfer conditions and
             the age of the original environmental impact statement. Interior did not
             state that its decision to prepare the supplement was based on significant
             new information that would require it to prepare a supplement to the
             original environmental impact statement. In fact, much of the new
             information that has become available is favorable to the proposed
             disposal facility. Interior’s underlying reasons for preparing a second
             supplement were that it should provide a forum for the resolution of the
             public’s concerns about the facility and independently determine if the site
             is suitable for containing radioactive wastes. Interior, however, has neither
             criteria nor technical expertise in radiological safety matters to
             independently determine if the site is suitable for a disposal facility, nor
             has it sought technical assistance from the Nuclear Regulatory
             Commission (NRC) or—with one exception—the Department of Energy.
             California, however, has met all of the state’s procedural and substantive
             requirements for licensing the proposed facility. Consequently, the state
             and its licensee have sued Interior to determine, among other things, if
             Interior has exceeded its authority with respect to radiological safety
             matters, such as determining the site’s suitability.


             The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980, as amended in 1985,
Background   made states, acting individually or collectively, responsible for disposing
             of the low-level radioactive wastes that are the by-products of nuclear
             power, radioactive medicine, research, and other commercial activities.
             Consequently, in 1987 Arizona, California, North Dakota, and South
             Dakota entered into a compact in which California agreed to develop and
             operate a disposal facility that would serve the needs of waste generators
             in the four states. The Congress ratified the compact in 1988.

             In addition to having the responsibility for developing a disposal facility,
             California is also responsible for licensing and regulating the facility. The
             state’s authority stems from a 1962 agreement with the Atomic Energy



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Commission (a predecessor to NRC), as authorized by the Atomic Energy
Act of 1954, as amended. In accordance with this agreement, the
Commission relinquished to the state a significant portion of the
Commission’s authority to regulate radioactive materials within the state,
including the disposal of low-level radioactive wastes. Licensing criteria
established by the state incorporated into the state’s regulations NRC’s
regulations for siting and regulating low-level waste disposal facilities.

In 1985, California selected US Ecology—a company that has operated
other disposal facilities for low-level radioactive wastes—as its “license
designee” and authorized the company to conduct a site screening and
selection process, investigate the suitability of the selected site, and
construct and operate a disposal facility that meets the requirements of a
license to be issued by the state. After screening and evaluating potential
locations for a disposal facility, US Ecology and California selected a
1,000-acre site in Ward Valley. (See fig. 1.)




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Figure 1: Map of Ward Valley Area




                                                                                  Colorad o Riv r
                                                                  95




                                                                                               e
                                                                                                    Fort Mohave
                                                                                                    Indian Reservation   40
                                                                                                                         66



                                                                       Needles

                                        40
                                               66
                                                    Proposed Ward Valley
                                                    Low-Level Radioactive
                                                    Waste Facility
                                                                                                                95
                                                                                 95




                                                                                 Chemehuevi
                                                                                 Valley                                        Arizona
                                                                                 Indian Reservation



                                                    Ward Valley                                        California



                                                                                                       95




                                                                                                                          95




                                                                                                            Colorado River
                                                                                                            Indian Tribes
                                                                                                            Reservation



                                                                                                                                     10

                                                                            10


                                                                                                                               95




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About 70 acres would be used for the trenches containing the disposed
wastes, a smaller area would be used for administrative purposes, and the
remaining area would be a buffer zone.

The site is on federal land managed by the Bureau. The transfer of the land
to the state for use as a disposal facility is considered a “major federal
action” that may have a significant effect on the quality of the human
environment under NEPA. Therefore, an environmental impact statement is
required to accompany the record for the land-transfer decision. Because
the state requires a similar environmental statement, the Bureau and the
state jointly prepared and, in April 1991, issued an environmental
statement concluding that the proposed facility would not cause
significant adverse environmental effects.

In July 1992, California asked Interior to sell the Ward Valley site to the
state under authority granted to the Secretary by the Federal Land Policy
and Management Act of 1976 (FLPMA). Among other things, this act
authorizes the Secretary of the Interior to transfer public land by direct
sale upon finding that the transfer would serve important public objectives
that cannot be achieved elsewhere and that outweigh other public
objectives and values served by retaining federal ownership of the land.
After such a finding, the transfer must be made on terms that the Secretary
deems are necessary to ensure proper land use and the protection of the
public interest. In January 1993, the outgoing Secretary decided, after
considering the environmental impacts of a licensed disposal facility at the
site, to sell the land as requested. Acting for the state, US Ecology then
paid Interior $500,000 for the land.

The Secretary’s decision was immediately challenged in federal court on
the basis of Interior’s alleged noncompliance with FLPMA and NEPA and
failure to protect native desert tortoises under the Endangered Species
Act. To settle the lawsuits and to assure himself that the proposed land
transfer would comply with applicable federal laws, the incoming
Secretary rescinded the earlier land-transfer decision and returned the
money that US Ecology had paid for the land. Meanwhile, in
September 1993, California issued a license to US Ecology, subject to the
transfer of the land to the state, to construct and operate the disposal
facility. Legal challenges to the state’s licensing action were denied by the
state’s courts.

From 1993 until 1996 the Secretary deferred the land-transfer decision
while (1) the Bureau completed, in September 1993, a supplemental



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                              environmental statement, (2) the Academy reviewed seven technical
                              issues related to the Ward Valley site, and (3) Interior negotiated with the
                              state the terms of a public hearing on the proposed facility and a
                              land-transfer agreement.

                              In May 1995, the Academy recommended that additional tests be
                              performed at the Ward Valley site to improve the program for monitoring
                              the disposal facility’s performance during and after the 30 years that the
                              facility was expected to operate. The Governor of California publicly
                              committed the state to implementing the substance of the Academy’s
                              recommendations. Interior notified the state that it would transfer the land
                              if the state would accept, as a condition of the transfer, Interior’s authority
                              to enforce in the courts the state’s compliance with the Academy’s
                              recommendations. California refused Interior’s offer on the grounds that
                              the implementation of the Academy’s recommendations falls into the area
                              of radiological safety, which is the state’s responsibility and is outside of
                              Interior’s authority and expertise.

                              With the transfer negotiations at an impasse, in February 1996 Interior
                              announced that it would prepare a second supplemental environmental
                              impact statement and conduct the recommended tests. Interior expected
                              these activities to take about a year to complete; however, as of June 1997,
                              Interior had not yet begun preparing the supplement or conducting the
                              tests.


                              The primary sources that Interior relied on in deciding that it would
Interior Primarily            prepare the second supplement and in selecting the issues that it would
Relied on Scientific          address in the statement were (1) scientific reports addressing concerns
Reports and Public            about the suitability of desert sites for disposal facilities and
                              (2) information obtained from the public, including environmental groups,
Concerns                      Native Americans, and others.


Interior Cited the            In March 1994, the Secretary asked the Academy to study seven
Academy’s                     radiological safety and environmental concerns about the disposal facility
Recommendations and           that were initially raised by three scientists in the Geological Survey’s
                              Menlo Park, California, office. The scientists—acting on their own rather
New Information on a          than in their official capacity—had presented their concerns to the
Disposal Facility in Nevada   Secretary of the Interior in June 1993 in a brief report and then prepared a
                              more comprehensive report on these issues in December 1993. In
                              particular, the scientists were concerned about the potential for (1) water



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to flow into the facility’s waste-emplacement trenches; (2) radioactive
materials to move through the unsaturated ground beneath the disposal
facility to the water table, which is at least 650 feet beneath the surface;
and (3) a connection between the local groundwater and the Colorado
River.

In a May 1995 report, a 17-member committee of the Academy concluded
that (1) the lateral flow of water at shallow depths beneath the desert
surface is not a significant issue at the site, (2) the transfer of
contaminants down through the unsaturated zone to the water table is
“highly unlikely,”1 and (3) although most of the groundwater flow beneath
Ward Valley discharges into a dry lake about 30 miles from the Colorado
River, there are conceivable, but unlikely, flow paths for some
groundwater to reach the river. The Academy added that the potential
effect on water quality of any contaminants that might reach the river
would be insignificant.

The Academy recommended, however, that additional tests be done at the
site. In particular, the Academy recommended that additional
measurements at the site be made to satisfactorily explain why US
Ecology detected tritium—a radioactive form of hydrogen that is produced
by atmospheric nuclear weapons tests and carried to the ground by
rain—about 100 feet beneath the surface of Ward Valley during its
investigation of the site. The unexpected presence of tritium so far
beneath the surface raised questions about how quickly radionuclides
(radioactive elements) from waste materials might migrate from the
disposal facility to the groundwater. The Academy concluded that
inappropriate sampling procedures probably introduced atmospheric
tritium into the samples extracted by US Ecology.

Fifteen committee members concluded that because US Ecology planned
to monitor the site for tritium during disposal operations, the issue of the
reported tritium needs to be resolved only before monitoring of the site
begins. For these members, the recommended tests were not intended to
resolve questions about the site’s suitability. In the opinion of the other
two members, the tests should be completed in time to use the results in a
final decision on the suitability of the site for a disposal facility.

Interior also based its decision to prepare a second supplement on the
Geological Survey’s detection of tritium and another radioactive element
in the soil adjacent to a disposal facility for low-level radioactive wastes

1
 Two committee members dissented from this conclusion.



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                            located at Beatty, Nevada. This facility had operated from 1962 until
                            Nevada decided to permanently close it at the end of 1992. US Ecology
                            began operating the facility in 1981. Since 1976, the Geological Survey has
                            operated a facility, located on federal land next to the Beatty facility, for
                            research on the disposal of low-level radioactive wastes in desert climates.
                            While conducting this research in 1994, the Geological Survey detected the
                            radioactive contamination from the Beatty facility in concentrations well
                            above natural background levels and confirmed this finding with
                            additional measurements in 1995.

                            The Geological Survey concluded that the detected contamination was
                            probably due to past disposal practices at the Beatty facility that are now
                            prohibited, such as disposing of liquid radioactive wastes. The Geological
                            Survey added that it is doubtful that the distribution of the contaminants
                            leaking from the site and their movement through the ground over time
                            will ever be understood because of incomplete records of the disposal of
                            liquid radioactive wastes. Therefore, the Geological Survey concluded that
                            extrapolation of the information from Beatty to the proposed disposal
                            facility at Ward Valley is too tenuous to have much scientific value.

                            In addition to the issues of the Academy’s report and the new information
                            on the Beatty facility, Interior said it would address a third issue—the
                            effects of the disposal facility on “nearby Indian sacred sites.” Interior did
                            not, however, identify any such sites or sources of information that led it
                            to select this issue. Later, Interior expanded the scope of this issue to
                            include a variety of issues pertaining to Native Americans.

                            Appendix I provides additional details on the three issues of the
                            Academy’s report, the Beatty facility, and the potential effects of the Ward
                            Valley facility on Native Americans.


Interior Also Relied on     Interior relied on the views of the public expressed, both before and after
Public Comments to Select   its February 1996 announcement, to select 10 more issues to address in the
Issues                      second supplement. For example, before Interior announced that it would
                            prepare a second supplement, an environmental group—the Committee to
                            Bridge the Gap—had been requesting that Interior prepare a supplement.
                            In August 1995, the Committee made this request because, it asserted,
                            Interior had broken its repeated commitment to hold a public hearing on
                            the Ward Valley facility and prepare a supplemental statement on any new
                            information raised in the hearing. The Committee was referring to the
                            Secretary’s decision, after the Academy issued its report, to discontinue



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                       negotiations with the state over the scope of and procedures for a hearing
                       in favor of transferring the site to the state under mutually acceptable
                       conditions.

                       Subsequently, in a February 8, 1996, letter, the Committee reiterated to
                       Interior’s Deputy Secretary its “numerous previous requests” for a second
                       supplement. The Committee said the supplement should address the new
                       information on the Beatty facility and the other significant developments
                       that occurred after the original environmental impact statement was
                       prepared. In addition to the Academy’s report, the Committee urged
                       Interior to address four other issues that Interior eventually selected:
                       (1) the potential pathways to the groundwater and then to the Colorado
                       River; (2) the types, quantities, and sources of wastes to be disposed of;
                       (3) the recent financial troubles of US Ecology; and (4) the protection of
                       the desert tortoise.

                       When Interior announced that it would prepare a second supplement, it
                       said the supplement would address the Academy’s report, the Beatty
                       facility, and “nearby Indian sacred sites.” Interior also said the public
                       could participate in identifying issues that should be addressed in the
                       supplement. Thereafter, the Bureau held pubic meetings and received
                       written comments on the scope of the new supplement. After summarizing
                       the public comments, the Bureau sent a list of 10 recommended issues to
                       Interior’s Deputy Secretary. Four of the 10 issues were similar to those
                       that the Committee to Bridge the Gap had already raised. Subsequently,
                       the Deputy Secretary approved of 13 issues to be addressed in the
                       supplement. In addition to the three issues that Interior cited in its
                       announcement and the four other issues that the Committee to Bridge the
                       Gap had recommended, the list of issues included: (1) the movement of
                       radioactive contaminants in the soil, (2) alternative methods of disposal,
                       (3) the potential introduction of nonnative plants, (4) waste
                       transportation, (5) the state’s long-term obligations, and (6) public health
                       impacts of operating the disposal facility. (See app. I for a discussion of
                       each of the 13 issues.)


                       Except for the Academy’s report and the new information about the Beatty
Current Issues Being   facility, all of the issues that Interior will address in the second
Considered             supplement had been considered earlier by US Ecology and California, in
                       the state’s licensing proceeding; by the state and the Bureau in their joint
                       environmental statement of April 1991; and by the Bureau in its first
                       supplement of September 1993. In announcing the new supplement,



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                              Interior said that the impasse with California over the land-transfer
                              conditions and the age of the original environmental impact statement
                              prompted its decision to prepare the supplement. Interior did not state
                              that the Academy’s report and the new information on the Beatty facility
                              were significant enough that it had to prepare a supplement. The evidence
                              suggests that Interior based its decision on environmental regulations that
                              give federal agencies discretion to prepare supplements to further the
                              purposes of NEPA.


Most Current Issues Were      Appendix I discusses what each of the 13 issues that Interior intends to
Addressed Earlier             address in the second supplement is and how they were addressed earlier,
                              as appropriate. One example of an issue that had been addressed in the
                              1991 environmental impact statement is the potential for rainfall to carry
                              radioactive contaminants through the unsaturated zone to the
                              groundwater. In the 1991 statement, the state and the Bureau noted that
                              extensive studies by US Ecology to evaluate this issue indicated that no
                              effects on groundwater would be expected. The statement also concluded
                              that there is no route for contamination of the Colorado River or to any
                              other surface water resources. The Bureau reiterated these conclusions in
                              its first supplement to the 1991 environmental impact statement.

                              To a significant degree, the state and the Bureau had also addressed
                              Native American issues in the site selection process, the state’s licensing
                              proceeding, and the 1991 environmental impact statement. The Director of
                              the Bureau’s Sacramento office reiterated this view in a February 1997
                              letter to the Environmental Protection Administration. The Director stated
                              that Colorado River Native American tribes were fully represented and
                              consulted in the scoping and descriptive phases of the 1991 statement. The
                              specific consultation steps, according to the 1991 statement, included an
                              archaeological survey of the site with Native Americans’ participation.
                              This survey found that no significant cultural resources were present at
                              the site. In addition, US Ecology contacted the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi,
                              and Colorado River Indian Tribes to evaluate potential cultural impacts of
                              a regional nature. A site-specific walkabout by tribal representatives did
                              not identify any unique cultural resources.


Interior Did Not State That   According to the regulations of the Council on Environmental Quality on
New Information Was           preparing supplements to environmental impact statements, a federal
Significant Enough to         agency must prepare a supplement when either substantial change in a
                              proposed action or significant new circumstances or information becomes
Require a Supplement


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available that is relevant to environmental concerns. An agency may also
prepare a supplemental statement when it determines that doing so will
further the purposes of NEPA. Among other things, these purposes include
promoting efforts to prevent or eliminate damage to the environment.

Although Interior’s announcement that it would prepare the second
supplement focused on the Academy’s recommendations and the new
information on the Beatty facility, Interior did not state that this new
information constituted significant new circumstances or information that
would require it to prepare a supplement to comply with the Council’s
guidelines. According to Interior, its decision to prepare the statement was
prompted by (1) the state’s rejection of its proposed land-transfer
conditions and (2) the passage of 5 years since the initial environmental
impact statement had been prepared.

Other evidence also indicates that Interior did not consider the Academy’s
recommendations and the new information on Beatty significant enough
to require a supplement. After the Academy issued its report, for example,
the Secretary of the Interior stated that the report “provides a qualified
clean bill of health in relation to concerns about the site.” According to the
Secretary, the Academy’s report provided a “needed careful investigation,
assessment, and consideration” of the issues that the three Geological
Survey scientists had raised and, with appropriate land-transfer conditions
based on the recommendations of that report, the Secretary was “now
confident that the transfer . . . [was] in the public interest.” Also, when
Interior announced that it would prepare the second supplement, it stated
that the Geological Survey’s new information on the Beatty site indicated
“little similarity with Ward Valley” but underscored the need for continued
scientific monitoring at both locations.

Interior also did not compare the public comments it received with the
state’s licensing record or the previous environmental statements to
provide a basis for identifying “significant” new circumstances or
information. According to the Bureau’s Sacramento officials who are
preparing the second supplement, whether or not there was any “new”
information was not important to the Bureau’s deliberations about what
issues should or should not be addressed in the supplement. For many of
the issues, they said, what was “new” was the public’s concerns about the
issues.

For example, new information about the desert tortoise became available
after the Bureau prepared its 1993 supplemental statement. The most



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significant new information is that Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service
concluded in 1995 that the facility will not likely jeopardize the continued
existence of the desert tortoise or result in the destruction or adverse
modification of critical habitat. Like the Academy’s report, the Service’s
conclusion is generally favorable to the proposed Ward Valley facility.

The new information related to Native American issues is the issuance of
two Executive orders since the Bureau issued the first supplement. One
order, issued 3 months after Interior decided to prepare the second
supplement, requires federal agencies to accommodate access to and
ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites and avoid adversely affecting the
integrity of such sites. The second order, issued in February 1994, requires
federal agencies to make “environmental justice” for low-income and
minority populations (including Native American tribes) a part of their
missions by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, relatively high and
adverse human health or environmental effects of their activities on these
groups.

Interior plans to assess compliance with the two Executive orders in the
second supplement. With respect to sacred sites, the state’s previous
licensing proceeding and the original environmental impact statement
documented, as discussed earlier, the absence of Native American sacred
sites at the Ward Valley site. According to US Ecology’s license
application, the site had once been disturbed by military tank maneuvers,
electric-power transmission lines cross the site, and the site is adjacent to
a “borrow pit” used to supply rock to construct Interstate 40 one mile
north of the site.

To respond to the Executive order on environmental justice, Interior
intends to address, in the second supplement, the effects that a disposal
facility at Ward Valley could have on Native American religious and
cultural values, tourism, agricultural cultivation, and future economic
developments. For example, Indian tribes are beginning economic
development projects along the Colorado River, including tourism, hotels,
and gambling casinos.

Interior also plans to reexamine alternatives to developing the facility,
including the “no action” alternative of not transferring the Ward Valley
site to California. In commenting on the planned scope of this alternative,
officials in the Bureau’s Sacramento office told us that they did not plan to
address the environmental justice implications for any low-income or
minority populations living near places where wastes are now temporarily



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                           stored. However, in commenting on a draft of our report, Interior said that
                           it intends to include environmental justice within the scope of its
                           reexamination of the environmental impacts of the “no action” alternative.


                           During 1996, Interior stated that its decision to prepare a second
Interior’s Reasons for     supplement was based on the impasse over land-transfer conditions, the 5
New Statement Are to       years that had passed since the original environmental impact statement
Provide a Public           had been issued, and the need to analyze new information that became
                           available and circumstances that occurred after the 1991 statement.
Forum and Determine        Although these factors may have precipitated the decision to prepare the
Suitability of the Site    statement, there are also two underlying reasons that have shaped
                           Interior’s actions on the Ward Valley issue for several years, specifically,
                           that Interior should provide a forum to resolve public concerns and
                           independently determine if the site is suitable for the planned disposal
                           facility. However, California and US Ecology believe that (1) the state has
                           the authority under the Atomic Energy Act, implementing criteria, and its
                           own expertise for determining if the site is suitable and (2) Interior had,
                           before its decision was rescinded, completed all essential requirements for
                           deciding on the land transfer. Consequently, California and US Ecology
                           have sued Interior over, among other things, whether it has exceeded its
                           authority with respect to radiological safety issues, such as the potential
                           public health effects of radionuclide migration, and, ultimately, the
                           suitability of the site for a radioactive waste disposal facility. The lawsuits
                           are pending.


Supplemental Statement     Interior’s regulations for transferring federal land under FLPMA do not
Substitutes for a Formal   require public hearings. Nevertheless, Interior wanted the state to conduct
Hearing                    a formal public hearing on the Ward Valley facility because of the
                           controversy over it, particularly the public’s concern that the facility could
                           jeopardize the water supply of millions of people in the Southwest. In lieu
                           of the formal public hearing, the second supplement and additional site
                           tests will, according to Interior, fulfill its responsibility to assure the public
                           that health and safety concerns are adequately addressed.

                           California did address the public’s concerns in a public hearing conducted
                           as a part of its licensing procedures for the Ward Valley facility. When
                           deciding whether to issue US Ecology a license, the applicable state laws
                           and regulations required the state’s Department of Health Services to
                           conduct a hearing in which the public could make brief oral statements
                           and provide written comments. These regulations required the department



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                             to include all comments in the written licensing record and to consider
                             them. Formal, trial-like hearings, with sworn testimony and
                             cross-examination, are only used in the case of a proposed suspension or
                             revocation of an existing license.

                             During California’s licensing proceeding, several individuals and groups
                             unsuccessfully urged the state to conduct a public hearing on the license
                             application using formal, trial-like procedures. Subsequently, however, a
                             state appellate court found that the state had met the requirements of state
                             law and regulations, such as holding the kind of public hearings specified
                             by law, for licensing US Ecology to construct and operate a disposal
                             facility at Ward Valley. An appeal of the court’s decision was denied.

                             California issued a license to US Ecology to build and operate a disposal
                             facility for low-level radioactive wastes at Ward Valley in accordance with
                             the state’s authority under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 and related state
                             laws and regulations. Interior, however, has not accepted the results of the
                             state’s licensing proceeding as an adequate basis for Interior to make a
                             land-transfer decision. For example, in an August 11, 1993, letter to the
                             Governor of California, the Secretary of the Interior requested that the
                             state conduct a formal public hearing as part of a credible process for
                             determining that the site is appropriate so the Secretary can make a
                             land-transfer decision.


Interior Wants to            FLPMA requires the Secretary of the Interior to ensure that federal lands
Independently Determine      transferred to other parties are properly used and protect the public
If Ward Valley Is Suitable   interest. California, on the other hand, is responsible for licensing and
                             regulating the Ward Valley disposal facility according to the state’s laws
for a Disposal Facility      and regulations that are intended to adequately protect public health and
                             safety. Where the respective responsibilities of Interior and the state
                             overlap, if at all, has been an uncertain matter. The former Secretary based
                             his decision (subsequently rescinded by the current Secretary) to transfer
                             the land in part on the findings of the joint state-Bureau environmental
                             impact statement of April 1991. Regarding radiological issues, the former
                             Secretary pointed out that (1) the state’s analyses of these issues showed
                             that any off-site migration of radionuclides would be less than regulatory
                             limits and (2) the proposed facility would be licensed by the state
                             according to “. . . all applicable federal and state laws and regulations.”

                             In contrast, the current Secretary of the Interior has asserted more overlap
                             between Interior’s and the state’s respective responsibilities. For example,



                             Page 14                                      GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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when the Secretary requested the state to conduct a formal public hearing,
he said the hearing should focus on the issue of the migration of
radionuclides from the site because that issue directly relates to his “. . .
responsibility under federal law regarding the suitability of the site. . . .”

Setting aside the issue of authority, which is in litigation, Interior has
neither the criteria nor the technical expertise to independently determine
if the site is suitable for a disposal facility. Moreover, Interior has not
sought advice or assistance on the suitability of the site from NRC or—with
one exception—the Department of Energy, which have such expertise.

NRC officials told us that in 1993, the Bureau had made a verbal request for
NRC’s views on the adequacy of California’s program for regulating
radioactive materials, including the Ward Valley facility. In June 1993, NRC
responded that it periodically reviews the state’s regulatory program to
determine, as required by the Atomic Energy Act, if the program is
compatible with NRC’s program for regulating radioactive materials in
states that have not agreed to assume this responsibility. On the basis of
these periodic reviews, NRC said that it had concluded that the state has a
highly effective regulatory program for low-level radioactive wastes and is
capable of conducting an effective and thorough review of US Ecology’s
license application for the proposed disposal facility.

According to officials of the Department of Energy, the Department had no
role in the proposed disposal facility at Ward Valley until Interior decided
to perform the tests recommended by the Academy. Following that
decision, Interior and Energy negotiated conditions under which Interior
would use facilities at Energy’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
to conduct one technical part of the tests. Interior officials subsequently
told us that Energy’s role in the testing has evolved into a partnership with
Interior in setting up the test arrangements. The Interior officials also
pointed out that federal agencies such as NRC and the Environmental
Protection Agency are expected to provide comments in the process of
preparing the second supplement.

California and US Ecology do not agree that Interior has the authority to
independently determine if the Ward Valley site is suitable for a disposal
facility. Their position is that the regulation of radiological safety issues,
such as the migration of radionuclides, is the state’s responsibility because
of the state’s agreement with NRC under the Atomic Energy Act. Therefore,
they argue, these issues are outside of Interior’s authority and expertise.
As discussed earlier, the state and US Ecology sued Interior earlier this



Page 15                                       GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
                         B-276538




                         year, asking the court to order Interior to complete the sale of the land and
                         declare that Interior had exceeded its authority with respect to protecting
                         the public’s health and safety against radiation hazards.2 Thus, the courts
                         ultimately will decide the legality of, among other issues raised by the
                         litigation, Interior’s position that it must determine if the site is suitable for
                         a disposal facility.


                         The task of developing new facilities for disposing of commercially
Conclusions              generated low-level radioactive waste has proven more difficult than
                         imagined when the Congress gave states this responsibility 17 years ago.
                         Because no state has yet developed a new facility, the actions in a leading
                         state, like California, are viewed as an indicator of whether the current
                         national disposal policy can be successful. In the case of California’s
                         proposed Ward Valley disposal facility, Interior has been unwilling to
                         accept the state’s explicit authority and findings concerning radiological
                         safety as adequate to permit Interior to decide on the proposed land
                         transfer. Instead, Interior has decided that it must independently
                         determine if the site is suitable for a disposal facility. Whether an
                         independent determination is within Interior’s discretion will be decided in
                         the courts. Setting this legal question aside, most of the substantive issues
                         that the public has raised to Interior for its consideration have already
                         been addressed by the state and by the Bureau of Land Management.
                         Moreover, subsequent new information, such as the National Academy of
                         Sciences’ report, generally favors the proposed facility.


                         We provided a draft of our report to Interior and California for review and
Interior’s and State’s   comment. Their written comments appear in appendixes II and III,
Comments and Our         respectively.
Evaluation
                         Interior said it disagreed that its decision to prepare the new supplement
                         was not based on significant new information that would require it to
                         prepare the document. We did not make our own determination of
                         whether or not new information, such as the Academy’s report and the
                         information on the Beatty facility, was significant enough to require
                         Interior to prepare the new supplement. Instead, we discussed the reasons
                         Interior originally gave for preparing the supplement and other evidence
                         that, taken together, indicated that Interior did not initially consider the



                         2
                           California Department of Health Services v. Babbitt, No. 1:97CV00218, (D.D.C. filed Jan. 31, 1997) and
                         US Ecology, Inc. v. U.S. Department of the Interior, No. 1:97CV00365 (D.D.C. filed Feb. 24, 1997).



                         Page 16                                                       GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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new information significant enough to require it to prepare a supplement.
We have revised our report to clarify this point.

In addition, Interior said that our report does not accurately discuss
Interior’s responsibility and authority for land transfers. We disagree. As
discussed in our report, the fundamental issue at Ward Valley is whether
or not the disposal facility would properly contain radioactive wastes and
therefore adequately protect public health and safety. California must
address this issue because of its authority derived from the Atomic Energy
Act. Interior’s statutory responsibility, however, is much less specific than
California’s. Interior must consider environmental impacts and ensure that
the “public interest” is protected if it decides to transfer the land as the
state has requested. Neither of the two statutes covering these
responsibilities—FLPMA and NEPA—would preclude Interior from giving
great weight to the state’s conclusions on radiological safety. In fact, when
the former Secretary originally decided (a decision subsequently rescinded
by the current Secretary) to transfer the land, he based his decision, in
part, on the record on radiological safety matters developed by the state.
Since January 1993, however, Interior has not accepted the state’s
conclusion that the disposal facility would comply with regulatory
requirements.

Interior also said that our report does not appropriately evaluate new
information and circumstances, available since 1991, that clearly warrant
the preparation of a supplement. Again, we do not agree. Interior’s
position is largely due to what it described in its comments as the
“uncertainties and unknown risks” related to the Ward Valley facility that
are illustrated by (1) the Academy’s inability to resolve the issue of tritium
measured beneath the site and (2) the relevance of the information on the
Beatty site to Ward Valley because of the similarities between the two
sites. Interior, however, appears to overstate the uncertainties and risks
that may be perceived from these sources. As discussed in our report,
most Academy members recommended that the tritium issue be resolved
for the limited purpose of improving the monitoring of the site—not to
answer questions about the site’s suitability. Moreover, the Academy’s
nearly unanimous findings and conclusions are generally favorable to the
Ward Valley facility and do not support Interior’s concern about
“uncertainties and unknown risks.” Also, the Geological Survey concluded
that it is doubtful that the situation at Beatty and the possible relevance of
that situation to Ward Valley will ever be understood because liquid
wastes were disposed of at Beatty—a prohibited practice at Ward




Page 17                                        GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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Valley—and related disposal records are incomplete. Thus, the Survey
questioned the relevance of the information on Beatty.

Finally, Interior commented on the statement that it does not have the
criteria or the expertise to independently determine if the Ward Valley site
is suitable for a disposal facility. Interior pointed out that, as is common
practice in preparing environmental documents, it is contracting with a
qualified consultant to prepare the supplement; the Department of Energy
is assisting on the tests concerning tritium; and NRC, the Environmental
Protection Agency, and other federal agencies with relevant expertise are
expected to provide comments on the supplement. We agree that these
sources of expertise are appropriate for assisting Interior in preparing the
supplement and conducting the planned tests. Our report, however,
addressed Interior’s position that it should independently assess the
suitability of the site from a radiological safety perspective. Although
Interior can contract with others for expertise on this issue, it has no
criteria for deciding if the site is or is not suitable for its intended purpose.

We have revised our report to incorporate Interior’s comments on the
issue of environmental justice. Our responses to Interior’s other specific
comments are provided in appendix II.

California agreed with our report and conclusions. The state also offered
comments to supplement the information in our report and clarify certain
points in the text, which we incorporated as appropriate.


We performed our review at the Department of the Interior’s headquarters
in Washington, D.C.; the Bureau of Land Management’s field office in
Sacramento, California; and California’s Department of Health Services in
Sacramento. We also performed our review at the headquarters of NRC, in
Rockville, Maryland; the Department of Energy, in Germantown,
Maryland; and the U.S. Geological Survey, in Reston, Virginia. Because we
did not independently evaluate whether the information that the public
provided Interior with addressed “significant new circumstances or
information,” we did not discuss this information with those who provided
it. We conducted our review from February through July 1997 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. (See
app. IV for details of our scope and methodology.)

Unless you publicly announce its contents earlier, we plan no further
distribution of this report until 30 days after the date of this letter. At that



Page 18                                         GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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time, we will send copies to the Secretary of the Interior; the Governor of
California; and the Director, Office of Management and Budget. We will
make copies available to others on request.

Please call me at (202) 512-3991 if you or your staff have any questions.
The major contributors to this report are listed in appendix V.




Gary L. Jones,
Acting Associate Director, Energy,
  Resources, and Science Issues




Page 19                                       GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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List of Requesters

The Honorable Frank H. Murkowski
Chairman, Committee on Energy
  and Natural Resources
United States Senate

The Honorable Don Young
Chairman, Committee on Resources
House of Representatives

The Honorable Joe Barton
The Honorable Brian Bilbray
The Honorable Ken Calvert
The Honorable Tom Campbell
The Honorable David Dreier
The Honorable Ron Packard
The Honorable Dan Schaefer
House of Representatives




Page 20                            GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Page 21   GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Contents



Letter                                                                                         1


Appendix I                                                                                    24
                      The Academy’s May 1995 Report                                           25
Issues That the       Movement of Radionuclides in the Soil                                   26
Bureau of Land        The Potential for Radionuclides and Other Materials to                  29
                         Contaminate the Groundwater Beneath the Site and the Colorado
Management Is            River
Considering in Its    The Beatty, Nevada, Disposal Site as an Analog to the Ward              30
Second Supplemental      Valley Site
                      Impacts on the Desert Tortoise                                          32
Environmental         The Nuclear Waste Stream                                                33
Statement             Alternative Methods of Disposal                                         34
                      Native American Issues                                                  35
                      Potential for the Introduction of Exotic Flora                          38
                      Transportation Issues                                                   38
                      The State’s Obligations Regarding the Disposal Facility                 39
                      Issues Pertaining to Us Ecology                                         40
                      Public Health Impacts of the Disposal Facility                          42

Appendix II                                                                                   43
                      GAO’s Comments                                                          51
Comments From the
Department of the
Interior
Appendix III                                                                                  52

Comments From the
State of California
Appendix IV                                                                                   58

Scope and
Methodology




                      Page 22                                   GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
                        Contents




Appendix V                                                                                       59

Major Contributors to
This Report
Related GAO Products                                                                             60


Figure                  Figure 1: Map of Ward Valley Area                                         4




                        Abbreviations

                        FLPMA      Federal Land Policy and Management Act
                        NEPA       National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
                        NRC        Nuclear Regulatory Commission


                        Page 23                                    GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix I

Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
Environmental Statement
              On February 15, 1996, the Department of the Interior’s Deputy Secretary
              announced that Interior would prepare a supplemental environmental
              impact statement on the proposed disposal facility in Ward Valley,
              California, for commercially generated, low-level radioactive waste. The
              purposes of the supplement are to (1) address public concerns that have
              been raised since Interior’s Bureau of Land Management and California
              jointly published an environmental impact statement in April 1991 and
              (2) examine recommendations made by the National Academy of
              Sciences.1 Interior intends to prepare the supplement prior to deciding
              whether to transfer land in Ward Valley to the state for use as a disposal
              facility.

              After a public scoping process, Interior’s Deputy Secretary selected 13
              issues that the Bureau would address in the supplement. In a
              December 1996 solicitation of contractors’ proposals to prepare the
              supplement, the Bureau stated that the purpose of the supplement was to
              analyze new information that became available and circumstances that
              occurred since the 1991 environmental statement was published.
              According to the request for proposals, the contractor will, for the most
              part, review relevant existing documents rather than generate new
              surveys, inventories, or other new information about the characteristics of
              the site. Interior anticipated that the major issues to be addressed will
              include but not be limited to

              1. The Academy’s May 1995 report

              2. The movement of radionuclides (radioactive elements) in the soil

              3. The potential for radionuclides and other materials to contaminate the
              groundwater beneath the site and the Colorado River

              4. The Beatty, Nevada, disposal site as an analog to the Ward Valley site

              5. The impacts on the desert tortoise

              6. The nuclear waste stream (types, amounts, and sources of wastes)

              7. The alternative methods of disposal

              8. Native American issues

              1
               The National Academy of Sciences is a private, nonprofit organization chartered to advise the federal
              government on scientific and technical matters.



              Page 24                                                      GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
                        Appendix I
                        Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                        Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                        Environmental Statement




                        9. The potential for the introduction of exotic flora

                        10.Transportation issues

                        11.The state’s obligations regarding the disposal facility

                        12.The issues pertaining to US Ecology

                        13.The public health impacts of the disposal facility

                        Of the 13 selected issues, Interior cited the Academy’s report; the Beatty,
                        Nevada, disposal facility; and “nearby Indian sacred sites”—one aspect of
                        Native American issues—as reasons for preparing the supplement and
                        added the remaining 10 issues on the basis of expressions of public
                        concern. Except for the issues related to the Academy’s report and the
                        Beatty facility, all of the issues had been addressed, to a significant degree,
                        in one or more of the following:

                    •   California’s licensing proceeding for the disposal facility. The
                        administrative record for the proceeding consisted primarily of US
                        Ecology’s initial license application to the state, records of oral and
                        written comments, and written responses to the comments.
                    •   The April 1991 joint California-Bureau environmental impact statement.
                    •   The Bureau’s first supplement to the environmental impact statement
                        issued in September 1993. The Bureau expressly limited the scope of this
                        supplement to the method for transferring the Ward Valley site to the
                        state. Nevertheless, because many public comments on a draft of the
                        statement addressed environmental issues, the Bureau also responded to
                        these comments in the supplement.
                    •   Related reports by Interior’s Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife
                        Service.


                        As California’s licensing process for the disposal facility was ending, the
The Academy’s May       state asked Interior to transfer the federal land, managed by the Bureau, to
1995 Report             the state for the development of the disposal facility. While Interior was
                        reviewing the state’s request, three geologists acting on their own from the
                        Geological Survey’s Menlo Park, California, office raised seven concerns
                        about the adequacy of the state’s evaluation of the proposed facility and




                        Page 25                                        GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
                       Appendix I
                       Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                       Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                       Environmental Statement




                       site to the Secretary of the Interior.2 The geologists’ analysis, known as the
                       “Wilshire Report,” raised questions about the validity of conclusions in site
                       evaluation documents and suggested approaches to resolving the scientific
                       problems they posed. The scientists were particularly concerned about the
                       flow of shallow water into waste trenches, the transfer of contaminants to
                       the groundwater, and groundwater connections from the site to the
                       Colorado River. They also had subordinate concerns about the lack of
                       off-site monitoring, the potential failure of flood control devices, the
                       inability to compensate for the loss of habitat for the desert tortoise, and
                       the plan to revegetate areas disturbed by waste disposal operations.

                       At the Secretary’s request, the Academy convened a committee of 17
                       scientists to evaluate the three scientists’ concerns.3 After reviewing the
                       data, the Academy recommended the continuation of data collection and
                       evaluation activities at the site to build scientific assurance, credibility,
                       and public confidence in the program for monitoring the disposal facility.4
                       Fifteen members of the committee believed that the additional data
                       collection and evaluation could be performed during the construction and
                       operation of the site. The other two members believed that the tests
                       should be completed in time to use the results in a final decision on the
                       suitability of the site for a disposal facility. In addition, the committee’s
                       chairman stated that, from a purely scientific standpoint, none of the data
                       reviewed by the committee supported further delay or opposition to the
                       construction of the facility if the Academy’s oversight and monitoring
                       recommendations were implemented.


                       The Wilshire group and others have raised concerns about the possibility
Movement of            that radionuclides might move through the soil under the site to the
Radionuclides in the   groundwater. As a result, Interior plans to address this issue in the second
Soil                   supplement. However, the Bureau’s position in addressing public
                       comments on its 1993 supplemental statement was that radionuclide
                       migration from the disposal facility would be “infinitesimally small.” In its

                       2
                        Howard, K.A.; D.M. Miller; and H.G. Wilshire. Description of Earth-Science Concerns Regarding the
                       Ward Valley Low-Level Radioactive Waste Site Plan and Evaluation (1993). The authors stated that the
                       report is not an official Geological Survey report and does not represent the policies or positions of the
                       Geological Survey.
                       3
                        The Ward Valley committee was composed of 17 scientists with a range of expertise in geophysics,
                       geochemistry, hydrology, soil science, ecology, botany, and environmental engineering. The scientists’
                       background included work in the transport of contaminants in unsaturated zones, the ecology of
                       desert tortoise and desert plant populations, soil physics, and the movement of radionuclides in the
                       environment.
                       4
                        Ward Valley—An Examination of Seven Issues in Earth Sciences and Ecology, National Academy of
                       Sciences (May 1995).



                       Page 26                                                        GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix I
Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
Environmental Statement




report, the Academy’s conclusion that migration was “highly unlikely” was
similar to the Bureau’s position.

Regulations on disposal facilities for low-level radioactive waste require a
prospective licensee to demonstrate that a proposed facility can meet
performance objectives related to the site’s and the facility’s ability to
contain radionuclides found in the disposed waste. As part of its license
application, US Ecology used a series of computer models to assess the
performance of the proposed facility at Ward Valley. The performance
assessment analyzed plausible pathways for the migration of radionuclides
from the facility and predicted that migration to the groundwater would
take thousands of years.

Commenters on the Bureau’s first supplement pointed out that, during the
site investigation, US Ecology had detected trace amounts of tritium 100
feet beneath the site. Therefore, the commenters suggested, the tritium
must have been carried there by rainfall in a matter of decades rather than
thousands of years. The Wilshire group also concluded that earlier
evaluations of the possible migration of radionuclides to groundwater
were inadequate. In the group’s view, the detection of measurable tritium
in deep soils beneath the site indicated the migration of tritium from the
surface at a rate much faster than presumed in site evaluation documents.
The scientists also concluded that properties measured and used in
modeling water migration in the unsaturated zone did not represent the
variability and complexity of the materials at the site.5

Furthermore, according to the Wilshire report, the potential for the
shallow lateral flow of water down the slope of Ward Valley and into and
out of the waste disposal trenches was not addressed in any of the site
evaluation documents prepared by US Ecology, the state, or the Bureau.
The scientists said that the available information shows that shallow,
low-permeability layers of soil exist in the slope beneath the site and
toward Homer Wash, which serves as the main drainage mechanism for
the valley. In the scientists’ view, these layers of soil could promote the
lateral, rather than vertical, flow of water. This condition, they said, could
lead to an excess of water leaking into and then out of the waste trenches,
causing the migration of contaminants from the trenches to Homer Wash
and then possibly redistributing the waste into the general environment by
wind and water erosion.



5
 The unsaturated zone is the area above the water table that includes soil that may contain water
under pressure less than that of the atmosphere.



Page 27                                                      GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix I
Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
Environmental Statement




However, in response to the concerns of commenters, the Bureau said that
finding minute traces of tritium in the soil does not invalidate US
Ecology’s predictions regarding the potential for radionuclides to reach
the aquifer below the site because, in part, the downward percolation of
rainfall does not occur below the upper few meters of soil. Instead, water’s
movement in the top 100 feet of soil is upward because of evaporation and
the consumption of water by plants. According to the Bureau, even in a
worse-case scenario, the amount of tritium that could find its way to the
groundwater would be infinitesimally small.6

Furthermore, the Academy concluded from multiple lines of evidence that
the potential migration of radionuclides through the unsaturated zone to
the groundwater is highly unlikely. The Academy’s report discussed a
number of aspects of this potential migration and did not find a likely
mechanism that would allow contaminants to reach the groundwater. In
the Academy’s view, the most likely explanation for the apparent detection
of tritium at unexpected depths beneath the site is flawed data collection
methods rather than the actual presence of tritium in the measured
amounts. Uncertainties about these methods should be resolved, the
Academy concluded, by remeasurement for tritium and the measurement
for other radionuclides, such as chlorine-36 from atmospheric tests of
nuclear weapons. A majority of the committee members said that these
measurements could be done during the construction and operation of the
site. Two of the 17 committee members disagreed with the general
conclusions about the transfer of contaminants through the unsaturated
zone. They said that they were not willing to judge the likelihood that
contaminants would reach the groundwater because of uncertainties
about the movement of water through the unsaturated zone.

In regard to concerns about lateral water flow, the Academy also found
that such flow at shallow depths beneath the desert’s surface is not a
significant issue at the Ward Valley site. According to the Academy, lateral
water flow into the trenches would be insignificant even with intense
rainfall or flooding because of the overall permeability of the soil and the
site’s gentle slope.




6
 The performance assessment’s worse-case scenario assumed that the entire quantity of tritium
projected to be received at the site during the 30-year operating period would be concentrated at one
location and instantaneously released.



Page 28                                                      GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
                          Appendix I
                          Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                          Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                          Environmental Statement




                          Interior plans to review whether radionuclides and other materials from
The Potential for         the Ward Valley site may eventually contaminate the Colorado River.
Radionuclides and         Concerns about the possible contamination of the river have been raised
Other Materials to        since the 1991 environmental statement was issued. Although the Wilshire
                          group disputed the findings of the environmental statement, the Academy
Contaminate the           generally agreed with the Bureau’s conclusion in 1993 that the disposal
Groundwater Beneath       facility will meet or exceed all environmental health standards with
                          respect to ground or surface waters.
the Site and the
Colorado River            Commenters on the Ward Valley environmental statements were
                          concerned that the location of the waste disposal facility could lead to the
                          contamination of the Colorado River through the contamination of
                          aquifers that might connect the valley with the river. However, the Bureau
                          concluded in its September 1993 first supplement to the 1991
                          environmental impact statement that the results of independent studies
                          and the predictions of radiological pathways, as reflected in the original
                          environmental statement, indicate that the disposal facility will meet or
                          exceed all environmental health standards and will not contaminate
                          ground or surface waters. Among other things, the Bureau concluded the
                          following:

                      •   US Ecology’s license application and the 1991 environmental statement
                          conclude that there is no route for the contamination of the Colorado
                          River or any other surface water sources. The reports found that Ward
                          Valley is a closed basin with no surface water drainage to adjacent basins
                          or the Colorado River. In addition, the reports concluded that no evidence
                          has been found of underground connections that would result in the
                          contamination of a water supply if groundwater were contaminated under
                          the site.
                      •   US Ecology did extensive studies to evaluate the depth of the groundwater
                          and the potential for infiltrating rainfall to carry radionuclides through the
                          unsaturated zone to the groundwater aquifer. The Bureau concluded that
                          the assumptions and scenarios used to evaluate the groundwater and the
                          potential for contamination indicate that no impact on groundwater will
                          occur under the expected site and operating conditions.
                      •   The selection of the Ward Valley site, with its natural features and surface
                          water protection, provides the key protection against contamination. All
                          available data show that water resources will not be threatened by the
                          disposal facility.

                          After reviewing the license application and environmental statements, the
                          Wilshire group stated that the application and environmental statements



                          Page 29                                       GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
                      Appendix I
                      Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                      Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                      Environmental Statement




                      were based on an inadequate assessment of the regional geology. The
                      group concluded in its report that there may be at least five hydrologic
                      connections between the site and the Colorado River groundwater
                      reservoir and that these connections engage aquifers presently in use that
                      are even closer to the site than the Colorado River.

                      The Academy, however, concluded that, although there are
                      conceivable—but unlikely—flow paths for some of the groundwater under
                      Ward Valley to the Colorado River, the potential impacts on the river’s
                      water quality would be insignificant relative to present natural levels in the
                      river and to accepted regulatory health standards. To assess the effects of
                      conceivable flow paths, the Academy estimated the total amount of
                      plutonium that might end up at the site and then assumed that all of the
                      plutonium would reach the Colorado River at the same rate it was
                      disposed of.7 The panel found that even under these hypothetical
                      conditions, the effects of the plutonium on the quality of the river water
                      would be insignificant when compared with the existing background level.


                      Interior plans to review whether the Beatty, Nevada, site of a now-closed
The Beatty, Nevada,   disposal facility for low-level radioactive waste is analogous to the Ward
Disposal Site as an   Valley site. Interior began to consider preparing the second supplement, in
Analog to the Ward    part, because of new information on radioactive materials found near the
                      Beatty site. However, the Academy found limited value in comparing the
Valley Site           behavior of the Beatty site with that of the Ward Valley site, and recent
                      evaluations by the Geological Survey show there is little scientific
                      connection between the Beatty and Ward Valley sites.

                      The Beatty and Ward Valley sites are sometimes considered analogous
                      because both are designed to bury low-level radioactive waste in shallow,
                      unlined dirt trenches in arid terrain. As part of its deliberations, the
                      Academy’s committee invited a team of Geological Survey hydrogeologists
                      to consider whether the Beatty site is an analogue for Ward Valley.
                      Geological Survey scientists do regard the Beatty site, in some respects, as
                      an analogue for the Ward Valley site because both are located in similar
                      terrain and have similar climate and hydrologic characteristics. Although
                      the natural settings are similar, according to these scientists, there are
                      major differences between the Beatty site and the proposed Ward Valley
                      site regarding the types of waste disposed of and disposal methods. For
                      example, the Beatty facility includes both a toxic chemical and a low-level

                      7
                       The Academy used plutonium because it remains hazardous longer than any radionuclide that might
                      be disposed of in a significant quantity at the Ward Valley site.



                      Page 30                                                   GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix I
Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
Environmental Statement




radioactive waste site next to each other. According to the Academy’s
report, there are also serious uncertainties about the types, compositions,
and physical forms of the wastes that were accepted at the Beatty site.
One such uncertainty is how much radioactive waste might have been
disposed of in a liquid form—a form that is now prohibited. The Academy
determined, therefore, that the Beatty site may be useful in understanding
some natural processes, but it is limited in evaluating the behavior of the
Ward Valley site because of historical uncertainties.

According to the Geological Survey, the contamination of groundwater at
the Beatty site has been known for many years. However, gas samples
collected by the Geological Survey at its research facility near the Beatty
waste site in 1994 and 1995 contained large concentrations of tritium and
carbon-14—concentrations well above ambient background levels. These
new and unexpected findings indicated the large lateral and vertical
movement of tritium and carbon-14 in the unsaturated zone at the research
site. Because it appeared that the Beatty site was the most obvious and
plausible source, the Geological Survey assembled a review team to
examine a variety of transport scenarios to determine whether the
concentrations could be explained by sources of tritium and carbon-14
within the waste burial area at Beatty.

The Geological Survey concluded that the tritium distribution at Beatty
was probably the result of the burial of liquid wastes and the fact that
some disposal trenches at Beatty were open for years until filled, allowing
the accumulation and infiltration of precipitation.8 The Geological Survey
also found that it is unlikely that the tritium distribution and its evolution
through time will ever be understood in detail because of the incomplete
accounting of liquid wastes at Beatty. The Survey’s Director concluded
that extrapolations of the results from Beatty to Ward Valley are too
tenuous to have much scientific value because of the uncertainties about
the transport mechanisms at Beatty and because liquid wastes will not be
buried at Ward Valley. Furthermore, the Survey’s Director concluded that
the findings of tritium near Beatty do not provide further insight into
which hypotheses about tritium at Ward Valley are correct. Finally, the
Director said that the Beatty findings reinforce the importance of
implementing the measures the Academy had recommended, including
long-term, continuous monitoring at the Ward Valley site and minimizing
the exposure of open waste trenches to precipitation.



8
 Survey Open-File Report 95-741 contains a summary of tritium and carbon-14 data at Beatty, Nevada.
Survey Open-File Report 96-110 contains the review team’s analysis of the data.



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                        Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                        Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                        Environmental Statement




                        As part of its second supplement, Interior intends to review the impacts on
Impacts on the Desert   the desert tortoise from the proposed low-level radioactive waste disposal
Tortoise                facility. Several groups have raised concerns that the development of the
                        Ward Valley site would have a serious effect on the habitat of the desert
                        tortoise. However, the 1991 environmental impact statement on Ward
                        Valley included measures to minimize the impact of the facility on the
                        desert tortoise. In addition, two Interior agencies—the Bureau and the
                        Fish and Wildlife Service—say that the Ward Valley facility will not
                        jeopardize the tortoise or its habitat.

                        The desert tortoise is a large herbivorous reptile found in parts of the
                        Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah deserts. By the late 1980s, the desert
                        tortoise had disappeared from parts of the Mojave Desert and declined in
                        many other areas. These declines led in 1989 to an emergency federal
                        listing of the entire Mojave desert tortoise population as endangered and
                        in 1990 to a final listing of the population as a threatened species. In
                        response to a federal mandate, the Fish and Wildlife Service published a
                        critical habitat designation for the Mojave desert tortoise population and
                        approved a desert tortoise recovery plan in 1994.

                        The 1991 environmental statement included proposed environmental
                        protection measures to minimize the impact of the disposal facility on the
                        desert tortoise and its habitat. The mitigation and compensation
                        measures—which US Ecology agreed to implement—are intended to
                        protect and potentially increase the number of desert tortoises. In
                        particular, fencing off a nearby stretch of Interstate Route 40 is intended to
                        reduce freeway kills. The measures had been accepted by the Fish and
                        Wildlife Service in November 1990 as part of consultation requirements of
                        the Endangered Species Act. This consultation included a review by a
                        committee comprising representatives of the Bureau, the California
                        Department of Fish and Game, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the
                        Desert Council. In a biological opinion, the Service concluded that the
                        Ward Valley project would not likely jeopardize the existence of the desert
                        tortoise. In addition, an Interior Assistant Secretary wrote that the
                        requirements of the Endangered Species Act have been met and that the
                        proposed measures will protect the desert tortoise.

                        The Wilshire group did not consider the mitigation plan established by US
                        Ecology and supported by California to be adequate. In the group’s view,
                        the artificial protection of displaced tortoises or the protection of their
                        habitat in different areas is unlikely to fully compensate for the loss of
                        habitat. In August 1995, however, the Fish and Wildlife Service reiterated



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                    Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                    Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                    Environmental Statement




                    in a second biological opinion that the disposal facility would not likely
                    jeopardize the continued existence of the desert tortoise or result in the
                    destruction or adverse modification of critical habitat.9 The Service
                    prepared the opinion using a number of sources, including a biological
                    assessment submitted by the Environmental Protection Agency and the
                    Bureau and prepared by US Ecology, the Academy’s report on Ward
                    Valley, and a risk assessment prepared by the Environmental Protection
                    Agency, to assess the potential radiological impacts of the facility on the
                    desert tortoise.


                    Interior plans to identify the current and future types and amounts of
The Nuclear Waste   nuclear waste from waste generators located in the Southwestern
Stream              Compact—the states of Arizona, California, and North and South
                    Dakota—that would dispose of low-level radioactive waste at the
                    proposed facility in Ward Valley. Public interest groups have raised
                    concerns about the nature of this waste stream, including the relative
                    amounts and types of low-level waste generated and disposed of by
                    nuclear power plants compared with other waste generators, such as
                    medical facilities. However, the projected nuclear waste stream was
                    described in US Ecology’s license application, addressed in the state’s
                    licensing records, and discussed in the 1991 environmental statement.
                    According to officials of the Bureau’s Sacramento office, there is little new
                    information on this issue.

                    The 1991 environmental statement described the low-level radioactive
                    waste expected to be produced within the Southwestern Compact
                    according to several categories, including nuclear power stations,
                    government agencies, medical institutions, academic institutions, and
                    industrial (nonmedical) concerns. California, for example, has more than
                    2,000 radioactive materials licensees, concentrated primarily in the Los
                    Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego areas. Licensees include hospitals,
                    universities, government agencies, biotechnology companies, and other
                    industrial radioactive material users including the state’s two operating
                    nuclear power stations. At that time, the report showed that for the period
                    1985 through 1987, nuclear power plants generated 39 percent of the
                    volume of low-level waste in the compact. The nonmedical industry
                    generated almost 46 percent of the waste, and the medical and academic
                    community generated the remaining 15 percent.



                    9
                    The Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency requested the consultation pursuant to the
                    Endangered Species Act.



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                          Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
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                          Environmental Statement




                          Finally, Bureau officials told us that the Bureau does not have new
                          information justifying the need to include the nuclear waste stream issue
                          in the second supplement. Rather, the Bureau will use the supplement to
                          determine whether information has changed since the state licensed the
                          disposal facility and the 1991 environmental statement was prepared.
                          According to officials of the state’s health services department, the
                          projections of waste to be disposed of over the operating lifetime of the
                          disposal facility have declined since the state licensed the facility.
                          Moreover, they stated, the amount of waste disposed of by the nuclear
                          power industry, in relation to that of other users of nuclear materials, is
                          not important as long as the amount and types of radioactive waste
                          disposed of at the Ward Valley facility do not exceed the limits imposed in
                          US Ecology’s license.


                          Alternative methods for disposing of low-level radioactive waste at the
Alternative Methods       proposed Ward Valley facility were a major area of public concern raised
of Disposal               in the scoping process for the second supplement, and therefore, will be
                          addressed in the statement. For example, one environmental group—the
                          Committee to Bridge the Gap—recommended that above-ground facilities
                          and multiple barriers be considered. However, US Ecology and the state
                          addressed alternative disposal methods in the state’s licensing proceeding.
                          In addition, the 1991 and 1993 environmental statements discussed
                          alternatives. The proposed facility would use a burial method in which
                          containers of waste are placed in 35-foot-deep trenches and then covered
                          with soil. The alternative disposal methods discussed in the statements
                          include the following:

                      •   The concept of disposing of waste in an above-ground vault. The primary
                          features of this concept include a vault, a drainage layer, and an interior
                          drain. According to the 1991 environmental statement, this concept is
                          inappropriate in a desert environment because of deterioration problems
                          (without ongoing and expensive maintenance), the need for a longer
                          institutional care period, a shorter route for radionuclides to escape to the
                          environment, and limited practical experience with applying the
                          technology.
                      •   A shallow land burial facility with double-lined trenches. The liners are
                          intended to prevent the migration of liquids and wastes into the soil. The
                          analysis of this alternative revealed benefits, such as isolating wastes from
                          the subsurface environment beneath the liner during the liner’s useful life.
                          However, the 1991 environmental statement concluded that there was no
                          technical basis for a liner to protect groundwater and that the installation



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                      Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                      Environmental Statement




                      of a liner system could result in a “bath tub effect,” causing water to build
                      up around the wastes. Furthermore, in a desert environment in which
                      there is very little precipitation, a high evapotranspiration rate,10 and
                      several hundred feet of unsaturated ground between the surface and the
                      water table, it is prudent not to concentrate moisture infiltrating into
                      waste trenches.

                      The alternatives to building the disposal facility discussed in the
                      statements included the following:

                  •   Storing wastes where they are generated. According to the 1991
                      environmental statement, the long-term storage of radioactive wastes at
                      multiple facilities throughout the state is not desirable and may increase
                      the risk of releases of radionuclides to the environment.
                  •   No action. According to the 1991 environmental statement, denying either
                      the land transfer or the license for the disposal facility would avoid the
                      potential adverse effects of the facility but would cause other types of
                      significant effects. This alternative would, among other things, place the
                      state in violation of the compact agreement ratified by the Congress, result
                      in potentially significant health effects if medical and other licensed
                      activities are curtailed or wastes are improperly managed, and delay, at
                      considerable cost, a necessary action into the future at a significant risk to
                      the public’s health and safety.


                      When Interior announced that it would prepare a second supplement, it
Native American       gave as one reason “nearby Indian sacred sites.” Subsequently, following
Issues                the scoping process, the Department expanded this issue to include a
                      review of various relevant materials regarding Native American issues.
                      According to officials in the Bureau’s Sacramento office, this expansion of
                      scope for the supplement is appropriate because of a recent underlying
                      shift in emphasis from cultural issues, such as sacred sites, to concern
                      about the health and economic effects that contamination of the Colorado
                      River could have on Native Americans living in the region. However,
                      Native American issues—including new requirements to consider sacred
                      sites and environmental justice—have been addressed to a significant
                      degree in previous licensing and environmental actions taken by US
                      Ecology, California, and the Bureau. One dimension of environmental
                      justice that the supplement does not include, however, is whether
                      developing the Ward Valley disposal facility has environmental justice


                      10
                        “Evapotranspiration” is a term used to describe the process by which water is returned to the air
                      either through direct evaporation or by the transpiration of vegetation.



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implications for people located around the sites where wastes are
generated and stored.

The Fort Mojave and Chemehuevi Valley Indian Reservations in California
and the Colorado River Indian Reservation in Arizona are adjacent to the
Colorado River. The California town of Needles, also near the Colorado
River and about 20 miles east of the Ward Valley site, is the closest
significant population center. The 1991 environmental statement described
the Ward Valley site as within the traditional, historic, and contemporary
use areas of the Mojave and Chemehuevi peoples. The area contains
natural resources that are important to their belief systems. Additionally,
the traditional trails crossing the valley outside the project area are
considered culturally important. As such, the entire Ward Valley is
considered to be sensitive in terms of ethnographic resources.

However, the proposed site of the disposal facility is crossed by existing
electric-power transmission lines and is also adjacent to a “borrow pit” for
rock used to construct Interstate Route 40 about 1 mile north of the site.
Furthermore, according to US Ecology’s license application, unlike large
areas of Ward Valley, which are still largely pristine, the proposed project
site has been extensively disturbed by such additional activities as tank
maneuvers by the military and yucca harvesting.

President Clinton issued Executive Order 13007 in May 1996 requiring
federal agencies that manage federal lands to accommodate, to the extent
practicable, access to and the ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites by
Indian religious practitioners and avoid adversely affecting the physical
integrity of such sacred sites. In February 1994, President Clinton issued
Executive Order 12898, which is designed to focus federal agencies’
attention on the environmental and human health effects of their activities
on minority and low-income communities (including Native American
communities) and achieve the goal of environmental justice. The concept
of environmental justice grew out of a grass-roots campaign against the
local siting of incinerators, landfills, and other facilities associated with
pollution and contaminated consumption in minority and low-income
communities.

Interior’s responsibilities related to the proposed land transfer require a
reasonable effort to identify and consider Native Americans’ comments
and concerns. The Bureau believes that Native Americans were fully
represented and consulted in the original environmental impact statement
as well as the first supplement. Nevertheless, Interior will consider the



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Environmental Statement




potential impacts of the proposed facility on Native American religious
and cultural values, tourism, future economic developments, and
agricultural cultivation in the second supplement. In addition, Interior will
examine compliance with executive orders on Indian sacred sites and
environmental justice.

However, Native American consultation was initiated by US Ecology early
in the site selection process and continued through the preparation of the
license application and the 1991 environmental statement. The state’s
licensee conducted archaeologic and ethnographic studies of tribal
activities in the region. Consultations with Native Americans focused on
the sensitivity of Native American resource use and cultural and religious
values.

The specific consultation steps taken in preparation of the license
application and considered in the 1991 environmental statement included
a 100-percent archaeological survey with Native American participation.
According to the Bureau, the survey indicated that no significant cultural
resources were present at the site. In addition, US Ecology contacted the
Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes to
evaluate potential cultural impacts of a more general regional nature. In
addition, during a walkabout at the site, no tribal representative identified
anything to suggest that the site has an established religious significance
to, or ceremonial use by, an Indian religion and did not identify any unique
cultural resources.

Furthermore, in the state’s view, the proposed transfer of land for the
Ward Valley low-level radioactive waste disposal facility is fully consistent
with Executive Order 12898. As discussed above, the state’s view is based
on the earlier consideration of socioeconomic, historical, and cultural
issues in the state’s licensing proceeding and in the 1991 environmental
impact statement.

Finally, according to Bureau officials, Interior is considering
environmental justice in the second supplement only as it pertains to
Native Americans and not to other minority or low-income groups. Thus,
although Interior plans to review alternatives to developing the facility,
such as storing waste at generators’ sites, the environmental justice
implications for potentially affected low-income and minority populations
are not within the scope of this review. According to California officials,
the potential exists for waste to be stored in urban locations if the disposal
facility at Ward Valley is not built. This carries environmental justice



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                         Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                         Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                         Environmental Statement




                         implications for urban populations, these officials maintain, because
                         depriving the generators of low-level radioactive waste of a safe disposal
                         option potentially discriminates against hundreds of thousands of minority
                         persons who live in proximity to the stored waste.


                         Interior plans to review the potential impacts that new flora may have on
Potential for the        the area as a result of building and operating the disposal facility. Officials
Introduction of Exotic   in the Bureau’s Sacramento office told us that the impetus for this issue
Flora                    was the Wilshire group. However, this group subsequently withdrew this
                         concern, and according to the Bureau officials, nothing new regarding this
                         issue is apparent.

                         The proposed site for the disposal facility is in a remote area that has
                         experienced little in the way of intensive development. However, various
                         land uses could introduce vegetation that is not native to the area. For
                         example, Interstate Route 40, a four-lane interstate highway, runs in an
                         east-west direction about 1 mile north of the proposed site. The request for
                         proposals requires the contractor to evaluate the potential for and impacts
                         of importing exotic species of plants into Ward Valley.

                         The Bureau and the state, in their 1991 environmental statement, included
                         a discussion of US Ecology’s plans to revegetate the site. The plan
                         described the timing, techniques, and locations for transplanting cacti and
                         yuccas during construction; the initiation of revegetation during operation;
                         and the restoration of the entire site after closure.

                         The Wilshire group initially said that misconceptions about the
                         enhancement of revegetation may interfere with the successful
                         reestablishment of the native plant community. Later, the group dropped
                         this concern, saying that it was satisfied that there is an adequate
                         revegetation program and that it will be overseen by an independent panel
                         of experts.


                         Interior plans to review transportation issues that were raised by the
Transportation Issues    public. However, aspects of transporting low-level radioactive waste were
                         addressed in the 1991 Bureau-California environmental statement. In
                         addition, the Bureau addressed concerns about transporting wastes in
                         responding to public comments on its first supplement. Although Bureau
                         officials told us that there is no new information on the issue that was not
                         discussed in the state’s licensing proceeding and the environmental



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                            Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                            Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                            Environmental Statement




                            statements, Interior plans to review and update the 1991 statement as part
                            of the second supplement.

                            Transporting low-level radioactive waste was considered in the original
                            environmental statement. In responding to public comments on that
                            statement, the Bureau and state noted that the potential for accidents was
                            determined to be a low risk and that the range for the possible effects from
                            radiological exposure due to an accident would be below that established
                            by regulatory limits and would meet environmental health and safety
                            standards. In addition, the statement recommended environmental
                            protection and mitigation measures, such as requiring all shippers to notify
                            the schedule and route of shipments in advance.

                            In responding to public comments on the first supplement in 1993, the
                            Bureau addressed public concerns about transporting wastes. At that time,
                            the Bureau discussed truck transportation because trucks were
                            considered the primary mode of transporting wastes. The Bureau made a
                            number of conclusions about transporting wastes in the state including the
                            following:

                        •   No transportation accidents involving low-level waste releases have
                            occurred in the state, and no radiological exposures have occurred from
                            an accident with a vehicle transporting low-level radioactive waste for
                            storage or out-of-state disposal.
                        •   The Ward Valley facility is expected to receive fewer than four shipments
                            per day, which represents only a small percentage of the hazardous
                            materials routinely transported through the state.
                        •   All waste is securely packaged for shipment and is not combustible or
                            explosive.
                        •   Inspection on arrival at the facility will ensure that waste transport
                            vehicles are not exceeding radiation limits or safety conditions.
                        •   Since transportation is an existing federally regulated system by which all
                            hazardous materials are transported in the country, all needed safeguards
                            already exist.


                            Interior plans to review California’s legal and financial obligations in
The State’s                 connection with the proposed Ward Valley disposal facility. However, the
Obligations Regarding       legal and financial liability issues were addressed in the 1991
the Disposal Facility       environmental statement prepared by the state and the Bureau.




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                       Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                       Environmental Statement




                       The Low-Level Radioactive Waste Policy Act of 1980, as amended, requires
                       that either the state or the federal government own disposal sites for such
                       waste. As a matter of policy, Interior will not permit the development of
                       this type of facility on federal land in the Mojave Desert region. Therefore,
                       the state, if it is to use the Ward Valley site for a disposal facility, must
                       obtain and retain ownership of the site.

                       Regulations implementing the low-level waste act anticipate that a
                       low-level radioactive waste disposal facility would be acceptable for
                       unrestricted surface use 100 years following the closure and stabilization
                       of a disposal facility. According to the state, US Ecology will be
                       responsible for the waste received during the 30-year operating period of
                       the disposal facility. Monitoring and institutional responsibility would shift
                       to California following the satisfactory closure and transfer of US
                       Ecology’s operating license to the state’s custodial agency.

                       A number of factors affect California’s total liability, however. First, the
                       operating license specifies that the licensee will continue to be responsible
                       for buried radioactive waste until the state finds that the site has been
                       satisfactorily closed. The failure to renew the license will not relieve the
                       licensee of the responsibility to carry out the site’s closure, post-closure
                       observation, environmental monitoring, site inspections, maintenance, and
                       site security until California transfers the license to the state’s custodial
                       agency or another licensee. Second, the Comprehensive Environmental
                       Response Compensation and Liability Act of 1980, as amended, primarily
                       determines the state’s liability for releases of radioactivity from the
                       facility. Under this law, four classes of persons may be liable for cleanup
                       costs: the current owner and operator, anyone who owned or operated the
                       facility when radionuclides were released, waste generators, and persons
                       who transported radionuclides to the facility. Under this law, the state may
                       be liable for environmental remediation costs as a waste producer and site
                       operator.


                       Interior plans to review the past performance of US Ecology and any
Issues Pertaining to   uncertainty regarding its financial status. This issue was raised during
Us Ecology             public scoping meetings for the second supplement on Ward Valley.
                       However, California already considered the company’s operating record
                       and financial condition in its licensing proceeding, and the state and the
                       Bureau had addressed it and found US Ecology fully qualified in their 1991
                       environmental statement.




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Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
Environmental Statement




The selection of US Ecology to develop and operate the low-level
radioactive waste facility for the Southwestern Compact has been
criticized by people who question the qualifications and operating record
of the company. US Ecology has operated four low-level radioactive waste
disposal facilities—two in areas with high rainfall (Sheffield, Illinois, and
Maxey Flats, Kentucky) and two in arid areas similar to Ward Valley
(Beatty, Nevada, and Richland, Washington). Small amounts of
radioactivity were detected in the groundwater at the Illinois and
Kentucky facilities. Also, in 4 separate years—1979, 1982, 1983, and
1984—tritium in concentrations well below NRC’s regulatory limits in water
was detected in a well at the Beatty site. The request for proposals for a
second supplement calls for the consideration of US Ecology’s past
performance and uncertainty regarding its financial status.

However, US Ecology’s record for operating other low-level radioactive
disposal facilities was addressed by the state in its licensing proceeding
and by the state and the Bureau in their 1991 environmental statement. In
responding to public comments on the environmental statement, the state
and the Bureau noted that California had issued a report of findings on US
Ecology’s past record and the company’s qualifications and capabilities to
develop and operate the Ward Valley facility. The report, issued in 1986,
found that US Ecology was fully qualified to develop and operate the
facility and that the problems that had occurred in the past at other
disposal facilities can be avoided through experience gained and through
the enforcement of stringent low-level radioactive disposal regulations in
effect since 1982. With respect to US Ecology’s disposal sites in Kentucky
and Illinois, the Bureau and state found that no member of the public had
ever been exposed to radiation as a result of off-site releases of buried
waste. According to the Bureau and the state, the experience with desert
disposal sites in Nevada and Washington is more relevant to California’s
effort.

California’s current position is that no new information has emerged to
change the state’s and the Bureau’s earlier conclusions that US Ecology is
fully qualified to operate the Ward Valley facility.

Recently, an environmental group also questioned whether US Ecology is
on solid enough financial footing to proceed with the Ward Valley facility.
The group asserted that US Ecology’s parent company appeared to be in a
serious financial condition because of large liabilities associated with
purchases of two waste companies in Tennessee and Texas. According to




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                        Issues That the Bureau of Land Management
                        Is Considering in Its Second Supplemental
                        Environmental Statement




                        the group, this development affected the qualifications of US Ecology to
                        safely operate the proposed Ward Valley facility.

                        According to California, the financial condition of US Ecology and its
                        parent company was considered in the April 1991 environmental impact
                        statement. In the unlikely event that US Ecology is unable to meet its
                        obligations, according to the state, the state would use available
                        mechanisms to replace the company with another qualified contractor.


                        Interior intends to consider, in the second supplement, the public health
Public Health Impacts   effects of accidents, fire, intruders, and radionuclide migration on
of the Disposal         operating the Ward Valley disposal facility. However, these issues were
Facility                addressed by the state and the Bureau in the 1991 environmental
                        statement.

                        For example, in their 1991 environmental statement, the Bureau and the
                        state summarized the effects of 30 hypothetical radiation exposure
                        scenarios varying from waste container breaks to several intrusion
                        possibilities. According to the statement, the scenarios were considered
                        appropriate for conservatively estimating the potential effects of facility
                        operations, accident conditions, and post-closure activities and events.
                        Specifically, for all credible exposure scenarios, the maximum doses of
                        radiation to on-site and off-site individuals were calculated for both
                        normal and accident conditions. Regardless of the probability of
                        occurrence, the results indicated that the projected maximum doses
                        would be well below regulatory limits and would meet the standards for
                        environmental health and safety.




                        Page 42                                       GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix II

Comments From the Department of the
Interior

Note: GAO comments
supplementing those in the
report text appear at the
end of this appendix.




                             Page 43   GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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Interior




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Interior




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                 Interior




See comment 1.




See comment 2.




See comment 3.




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                 Interior




See comment 4.




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Interior




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Interior




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                 Comments From the Department of the
                 Interior




                 The following are GAO’s comments on the Department of the Interior’s
                 letter dated July 3, 1997.


                 1. Interior commented that California’s hearing on Ward Valley did not
GAO’s Comments   subject the project to appropriate review. In our view, this issue is not
                 relevant to Interior’s obligations to decide whether or not to transfer the
                 land. The state has its requirements for public hearings on the issuance of
                 licenses, and its courts determined that the state had followed these
                 requirements. Neither the Federal Land Policy and Management Act nor
                 the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 requires that Interior hold a
                 public hearing before deciding on the proposed land transfer.

                 2. Interior commented that without further study, the information on the
                 Beatty facility will shed little light on how the wastes migrated from that
                 facility. It should be noted that, according to the Geological Survey,
                 further study will probably not answer this question or provide insightful
                 information on the Ward Valley facility because of the incomplete
                 accounting of the disposal of liquid radioactive waste at Beatty.

                 3. We agree that Interior is required to comply with the Executive Orders
                 on Indian sacred sites and environmental justice. We note, however, that
                 complying with these orders does not require the preparation of an
                 environmental impact statement—or, in the case of Ward Valley, a
                 supplement.

                 4. During the course of our review, we found no indication that Interior
                 evaluated new information received in relation to information that had
                 previously been considered or that the determination that the information
                 was “new” was important in the selection of issues to be addressed in the
                 supplement. As discussed in our report, the intensity of the public’s
                 concern about issues was more important to the Bureau in recommending
                 issues to be considered in the supplement than whether or not any new
                 information had been made available.




                 Page 51                                       GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix III

Comments From the State of California




               Page 52         GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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Comments From the State of California




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                Appendix III
                Comments From the State of California




Now on p. 2.




Now on p. 3.



Now on p. 5.




Now on p. 8.




Now on p. 14.


Now on p. 34.




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Page 57                                 GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix IV

Scope and Methodology


                  To (1) identify the sources of information that the Department of the
                  Interior relied upon for a second supplemental environmental statement
                  and (2) determine if the issues the Department is addressing had already
                  been considered, and if so, on the basis of significant new information, we
                  performed our work primarily at Interior’s headquarters in Washington,
                  D.C.; the Department’s state office in Sacramento, California; and the
                  state’s Department of Health Services in Sacramento. At these locations,
                  we obtained and reviewed information from officials of Interior’s Office of
                  the Solicitor and Bureau of Land Management and the state’s health
                  services department. This information included

              •   legislation, regulations, and guidance related to transfers of federal land
                  and authorizing construction and operation of disposal facilities for
                  commercially generated low-level radioactive waste;
              •   correspondence on the proposed disposal facility at Ward Valley of an
                  intradepartmental nature, between the state and the the Deparment
                  (including the Bureau), and from the public to the Deparment and the
                  Bureau; and
              •   Ecology’s application to the state for a license to build and operate a
                  disposal facility at Ward Valley, the joint state-Bureau environmental
                  impact statement of April 1991, and the Bureau’s September 1993
                  supplemental statement.

                  We also obtained and reviewed information from officials of the
                  (1) Executive Director for Operations, Nuclear Regulatory Commission,
                  Rockville, Maryland; (2) Assistant Secretary for Environmental
                  Management, Department of Energy, Germantown, Maryland; and U.S.
                  Geological Survey, Reston Virginia.




                  Page 58                                       GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Appendix V

Major Contributors to This Report


                        Dwayne E. Weigel, Assistant Director
Resources,              John E. Bagnulo, Evaluator-in-Charge
Community, and          Cassandra D. Joseph, Communications Analyst
Economic                Susan W. Irwin, Senior Attorney

Development
Division, Washington,
D.C.
                        Sue E. Naiberk, Assistant Director
Denver, Colorado        Cheryl L. Pilatzke, Senior Evaluator
                        Cynthia S. Rasmussen, Senior Evaluator




                        Page 59                                  GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
Related GAO Products


              Radioactive Waste: Status of Commercial Low-Level Waste Facilities
              (GAO/RCED-95-67, May 5, 1995).

              Nuclear Waste: Connecticut’s First Site Selection Process for a Disposal
              Facility (GAO/RCED-93-81, Apr. 5, 1993).

              Nuclear Waste: New York’s Adherence to Site Selection Procedures Is
              Unclear (GAO/RCED-92-172, Aug. 11, 1992).

              Nuclear Waste: Slow Progress Developing Low-Level Radioactive Waste
              Disposal Facilities (GAO/RCED-92-61, Jan. 10, 1992).

              Nuclear Waste: Extensive Process to Site Low-Level Waste Disposal
              Facility in Nebraska (GAO/RCED-91-149, July 5, 1991).




(141028)      Page 60                                     GAO/RCED-97-184 Radioactive Waste
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