The Paducah Sun
The Paducah Sun

Wednesday, May 03, 2000 Paducah, Kentucky

GAO report: Cleanup costs not for certain

The plan assumes federal funding will increase to an average of $124 million at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant.

By Joe Walker

Uncertainties about the extent, source and nature of contamination at the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant have cast doubt on the Department of Energy's plan to clean up the mess by 2010 even at a cost of $1.3 billion, a new investigative report says.

The General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative and auditing arm, released a report Tuesday saying the plan assumes annual federal funding will increase to an average of $124 million through the decade. That is "considerably higher" than the $43 million average annual funding DOE has received during the past seven years since Congress set up a cleanup fund, the report says. For fiscal 2001, the department has requested $78 million.

"Furthermore, if the cleanup plan is carried out as currently envisioned, billions of dollars and many years will be required to address areas not included in the current cleanup plan," the report says.

Even if DOE gets the extra money, doubts about contamination yet to be cleaned up and the outcome of that could increase cleanup costs, the report says. "DOE faces several technical risks, including the planned use of technologies that are unproven or perhaps not well suited to the site's conditions," it states.

There are other serious financial questions not addressed in the cleanup plan, according to the report.

A planned facility to convert nearly half a million tons of depleted uranium hexafluoride waste into a safer material and remove it from the plant may cost $1.8 billion to $2.4 billion. The cost includes operating the facility for nearly 25 years and storing and disposing of unused converted material.

Based on 1998 estimates, another $1 billion is needed to clean up and remove facilities once the uranium enrichment plant stops running and is returned to DOE ownership.

The GAO report criticizes the department for having a sizable part of the plant's messes under the jurisdiction of a section of the agency that does not receive environmental cleanup funding. It recommends that Energy Secretary Bill Richardson transfer the work — including cleaning up unused structures and handling waste storage areas that pose a slight risk of a nuclear accident — from the Office of Nuclear Energy to the Office of Environmental Management.

Also, the report suggests that Richardson direct the Office of Environmental Management to include in the cleanup plan "any and all materials at the site that are potential health hazards and to re-examine the sitewide contamination risks and cleanup priorities, costs and schedules."

During an April 11 Senate hearing, Carolyn Huntoon, assistant secretary of environmental management, agreed to report on the cost, schedule and best way to clean up the entire plant. Sen. Mitch McConnell said he is still waiting for an answer.

Huntoon said in a letter responding to the GAO that the report does not account for ongoing work and improvements at the site. She said the report failed ‘‘to offer specific alternatives or recommendations" about DOE's planning assumptions and target dates to complete work.

McConnell and Sen. Jim Bunning, who sought the investigation, said the findings verify their concerns that the cleanup plan is underfunded, too optimistic and not comprehensive enough.

"The Department of Energy has used bureaucratic sleight-of-hand to cover up cleanup costs at the site," McConnell said. "DOE has excluded several items from its overall cleanup plan, including 57,000 cylinders of depleted uranium, thousands of barrels of radioactive waste and 16 contaminated buildings and structures."

The accounting office "found that the DOE plan neglects several crucial components of the cleanup, namely the department's material storage areas where there are nearly one million cubic feet of contaminated waste and scraps," Bunning said. "This report shows once and for all what we have been saying all along, that DOE's plan is incomplete and unreliable."

Citing a draft of the report, Bunning took DOE officials to task last month in a Senate hearing examining cleanup work at the plan. He said he will seek another hearing later this month to include GAO and DOE testimony.

During the April hearing, he pointed to the 148 material storage areas, 73 of which DOE said pose slight risks of a nuclear criticality, or uncontrolled nuclear reaction. The waste areas are part of the Office of Nuclear Energy.

The report says criticality is a threat to worker safety because it can result in "a burst of radiation that generally lasts several hours; it is, however, a localized event that would not result in an explosion or release of radioactivity to the atmosphere."

DOE has a verbal agreement to pay plant operator USEC Inc. about $4.8 million to do a safety review by July on the 10 areas that have the highest criticality risk. But the agreement does not address the needs for a review of the other 63 sites, the GAO report says, and the work schedule does not include reviewing the rest of the areas.

Investigators found that parts of the Energy Department plan rely too heavily on unproven cleanup methods. The report says some of the groundwater plan does not meet Environmental Protection Agency standards for safe drinking water.

Since 1988, when traces of the radioactive substance technetium-99 and degreaser trichloroethylene were found in some residential wells near the plant, DOE has spent $388 million studying and cleaning up areas of contamination at the plant. The department is paying $78,000 a year providing city water to about 100 homes and businesses threatened by groundwater pollution.

About 10 billion gallons of contaminated water are spreading from the plant in three different "plumes," at least one of which could have reached the Ohio River about three miles away, the GAO report says.

As a plume that extends northeast of the plant "approaches more residences and businesses, DOE may have to connect additional homes and businesses to municipal water supplies," the report said. "DOE plans to continue providing water to the affected residences and businesses indefinitely — until the groundwater is safe to drink."

Although the department expects to complete planned groundwater cleanup by 2006, it faces significant challenges, the report says.

Trichloroethylene, or TCE, drops through the aquifer until it reaches a hard surface, where it lies and slowly contaminates the water. "The difficult task of locating and eliminating these pockets of contamination, perhaps 100 feet underground, could affect DOE's ability to complete its planned groundwater activities within the estimated costs and schedule," according to the report.

DOE is spending $2.1 million a year on two systems to pump and treat the worst areas of groundwater pollution. Because the systems have limited effectiveness, the department thinks it will be able to end pumping and treating in 2005 after installing barriers in the ground through which the water will flow and be treated.

The GAO report says that if the barriers and other techniques prove infeasible, there will be more unplanned costs to find alternatives. The barriers' life is 10 to 20 years, and they are expected to remain in place for 70 years, yet DOE has not included long-term operation and maintenance costs for them. Paducah DOE officials said the reason was "they had no reasonable basis for estimating what such costs would be," the report says.

The report also says finding and cleaning up all the groundwater contamination sources "are uncertain and are likely to have the greatest implications on cleanup efforts."