Nuclear Nonproliferation:

DOE Action Needed to Ensure Continued Recovery of Unwanted Sealed Radioactive Sources

GAO-03-483: Published: Apr 15, 2003. Publicly Released: May 13, 2003.

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Potentially dangerous sealed sources containing greater-than-Class-C radioactive material pose a threat to national security because terrorists could use them to make "dirty bombs." Public Law 99-240 requires the Department of Energy (DOE) provide a facility for disposing of unwanted sources. Because DOE has no disposal facility for these sources, its Off-Site Source Recovery Project is recovering and temporarily storing them at Los Alamos, New Mexico. GAO was asked to determine (1) the number of unwanted sealed sources that DOE plans to recover through 2010 and the estimated cost, (2) the status of recovery efforts and any problems that DOE may face, and (3) the status of DOE's efforts to provide a disposal facility for these sealed sources

The exact number of unwanted greater-than-Class-C sealed sources in the United States is unknown, but DOE estimates it will recover about 14,300 such sources by the end of fiscal year 2010, at a total cost of about $69 million. DOE's estimate of the number of sealed sources it will recover was based on three assumptions--that a permanent disposal facility would be available by fiscal year 2007; that the Off-Site Source Recovery Project's recovery operations would be phased out from fiscal years 2007 through 2010; and that, after fiscal year 2010, all sealed sources would be sent directly to a disposal facility and the project would cease operations. Through February 2003, DOE's Off-Site Source Recovery Project had recovered more than 5,000 greater-than-Class-C sealed sources from about 160 sites across the United States; however, the project faces three problems that could hinder future recovery efforts. First, the project is not a priority with DOE's Office of Environmental Management, because, according to office officials, the project does not conform with the mission of the office. The project did not receive full funding, even after September 11, 2001, because of the Office of Environmental Management's other higher priority projects, and the office's current budget specifies future annual funding levels that, according to project officials, would be insufficient to enable the project to recover additional sealed sources. Second, DOE cannot recover any additional sealed sources containing plutonium-239 because the project has already run out of space at the Los Alamos National Laboratory that meets DOE's higher security standards for storing these sources. Third, DOE has not approved a means for storing sealed sources containing strontium-90 and cesium-137 until a permanent disposal facility is available. As of February 2003, more than 17 years after the enactment of Public Law 99-240, DOE had not made progress toward providing for the permanent disposal of greater-than-Class-C radioactive sealed sources, as required by the act. Specifically, DOE had not assigned responsibility to an office within DOE to begin developing such a facility. Also, according to DOE officials, DOE lacks a plan for ensuring the continued recovery of sealed sources in the likely event that the disposal facility is delayed beyond fiscal year 2007.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The secretary assigned responsiblity for this. The remainder of the recommendation will be addressed in the environmental impact statement when it is prepared.

    Recommendation: To help manage the process, the Secretary should develop a plan that would, at a minimum, assign responsibility for developing the facility; establish milestones by which progress can be measured; evaluate potential disposal options; estimate costs and schedules; and address legislative, regulatory, and licensing considerations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE completed the requirements for accepting plutonium-239 at Los Alamos National Laboratory and began recovering plutonium-239 sources as of November 2003. In February, the Off-Site Source Recovery Project started recovery of strontium-90 sources. It will begin recovering cesium-137 in September 2004.

    Recommendation: To ensure that unwanted greater-than-Class-C sealed sources containing plutonium-239, strontium-90, and cesium-137 are properly secured to prevent their use in dirty bombs or, in the case of sources containing plutonium-239, nuclear weapons, the Secretary of Energy should take immediate action to provide storage space for these sources at a secure DOE facility and establish milestones by which progress can be measured to ensure that the storage space is provided as soon as possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 28, 2003, DOE's Undersecretary for Energy, Science and Environment sent a memorandum to DOE's Acting Director, Office of Management, Budget and Evaluation/Acting Chief Financial Officer stating that the Office of Environmental Management and the National Nuclear Security Administration have agreed to realign management responsibility for the Off-Site Source Recovery Project. The Project is now located in the Office of Global Nuclear Materials Disposition and Threat Reduction.

    Recommendation: Once this determination has been made, the Secretary of Energy should ensure that adequate resources are devoted to the project to cover the costs of recovering and storing these sealed sources as quickly as possible.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In December 2003, the responsibility for the analysis required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 to develop a permanent disposal facility for the greater-than-class-C radioactive waste was moved to DOE's Office of Environment, Safety, and Health. The office initiated the process to publish an Advance Notice of Intent to prepare an environmental impact statement.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should initiate the process to develop a permanent disposal facility for greater-than-Class-C radioactive waste to carry out the requirements of Public Law 99-240.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 28, 2004, DOE's Undersecretary for Energy, Science and Environment sent a memorandum to DOE's Acting Director, Office of Management, Budget and Evaluation/Acting Chief Financial Officer stating that the Office of Environmental Management and the National Nuclear Security Administration have agreed to realign management responsibility for the Off-Site Source Recovery Project. The Project is now located in the Office of Global Nuclear Materials Disposition and Threat Reduction.

    Recommendation: Because of the risk that unwanted greater-than-Class-C sealed sources could be used as weapons of terror, the Secretary of Energy should determine whether the priority given to the Off-Site Source Recovery Project is commensurate with the threat posed by these sealed sources.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOE officials told GAO that the Off-Site Source Recovery Project would continue. However, no plan had been developed to date.

    Recommendation: Because it is unlikely that a permanent disposal facility for such waste will be operational by fiscal year 2007, when the Off-Site Source Recovery Project is scheduled to begin phasing out operations, the Secretary of Energy should develop a plan to ensure the continued recovery and storage of greater-than-Class-C sealed sources until a disposal facility is available.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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