Years of mismanagement, delays at nuclear waste sites could pose risk, report says

While Savannah River Site is making significant progress cleaning up the waste, the site has the highest percentage of waste of any of the DOE sites.

JACKSON, S.C. — A scathing government report showed years of mismanagement of nuclear waste disposal could be creating a real risk to people living near decades-old nuclear waste sites. One of those sites sits miles from the Savannah River and is home to 35 million gallons of radioactive waste.

The Savannah River Site near Jackson, SC is one of 16 facilities built to produce nuclear fuel for research and Cold War-era weapons in the 50s that the Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management is tasked with cleaning up. The Savannah River Site has the highest percentage of radioactive material of any EM site.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, cost estimates to clean up the legacy radioactive tank waste and contamination at the facilities increased $214 billion from 2011 through 2018. During that same period, DOE spent $45 billion on cleanup efforts.

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DOE spent $170 billion on cleanup since 1989, but the most challenging work remains. Estimates now stand at $377 billion to clean up the waste, but that amount does not include cost to clean sites where no feasible remedy exists.

“It's not a pretty picture,” said David Trimble, director of GAO’s natural resources and environment team.


GAO released several audits this year reporting that contract and project mismanagement of DOE's waste cleanup had resulted in delays and a rise in cleanup costs. The report stated DOE had not established cleanup priorities at some sites for years.

“They don’t have a plan, they’re not following program management best practices, they’re not following project management practices, and they have no data to know how well they’re doing,” Trimble said.

At stake is the environmental and health safety for communities around these sites. Some tanks containing waste are decades old. Nuclear waste from 62 underground tanks at the Hanford Site in Washington are suspected to be leaking. GAO’s audit suggested Hanford alone will take tens of billions of dollars more to clean. Hanford, like Savannah River, sits near a major river.

"It's kind of a lurking giant across the river from Georgia that holds a lot of potential environmental risks," said Savannah River Watch Director Tom Clements.

Clements monitors many energy and nuclear issues, including the Savannah River Site.

“This is going to be a threat well into human history from this point forward," Clements said.

Right now, some of Savannah River Site's waste sits in decades-old underground carbon-steel tanks. It is a tedious process to remove sludge and liquid waste inside of them. When most of that waste is removed the tanks will be filled with grout and left in the ground. Some liquid waste is mixed with molten glass to stabilize it. This process is called vitrification, or glassification. Savannah River Site has the largest radioactive glassification plant in the world and has made significant progress glassifying waste. The goal is to fill 6,000 canisters with glassified waste over a 20- to 25-year span. The glassified waste is temporarily housed at Savannah River Site until DOE names a permanent location. Videos illustrating this process can be found on the Savannah River Site's YouTube page.

“Right now, we’re stuck with that high-level waste on the site and we’re stuck with these tanks filled with concrete forever,” Clements said.

Channel 2 requested an on-camera interview with a representative from DOE to address GAO audits, and a tour of the Savannah River Site. DOE denied the TV station's request and referred to a statement Assistant Secretary for the Office of Environmental Management Anne White made to Congress earlier this month. 

White told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce’s Oversight and Investment Subcommittee that she was committed to improving her office’s oversight performance, identifying the cause of the growing environmental cleanup costs, and implementing several GAO recommendations.

“We remain committed to completing cleanup so our host communities, can envision a vibrant future with enduring and diverse economic opportunity,” White told subcommittee members.

Still, a bipartisan group of lawmakers voiced concern for rising costs, cleanup delays and mismanagement. Some asked White why the Environmental Management office requested even less money this year -- a 10% reduction -- even though cleanup costs are at least $377 billion.

“The budget we requested is adequate for the scope we have planned,” White said.

Clements said he fears lawmakers’ scrutiny of the hundreds of billions needed to cleanup nuclear waste will not result in more resources, but in corner-cutting instead.

“I’m afraid that members of Congress are going to look at that and say we can’t afford this cleanup. We’ve got to find quicker and cheaper ways to do it,” Clements said.