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Rising Nuclear Waste Cleanup Costs Spark Outrage from Congressmen

May 3, 2019 by Tom Ramstack

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress expressed outrage Wednesday during hearings on Capitol Hill at the rising cost and government inaction in cleaning up the nation’s nuclear waste.

Some lawmakers were reacting to a Government Accountability Office report released this week that shows the cleanup costs have risen by more than $214 billion to about $377 billion.

The Trump budget proposes giving the Department of Energy $6.5 billion for nuclear cleanup in fiscal year 2020, which would be down from $7.2 billion this year.

Both annual budgets are far below the level the GAO says is needed. The U.S. government has spent $46 billion since 2011 to clean up radioactive waste from 16 nuclear power plants and from military weapon production.

“Cleaning up these sites is a critically important task of the federal government,” said U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, chairwoman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

She demanded that the Energy Department explain the skyrocketing costs and what can be done to reverse the trend.

She also expressed concern the high costs would compel the Energy Department to do a hurry-up job to save money.

“GAO has told the Committee that this growing liability poses not only a financial risk to the taxpayer, but possibly to cleanup operations if corners are cut or important tasks are deferred to future dates due to costs,” said DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.

Congressmen questioned whether the Energy Department had the staff, expertise and resources needed for the cleanup.

“GAO continues to find numerous management challenges with how [the Energy Department] is managing the cleanup effort,” said Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., a New Jersey Democrat.

He criticized the Energy Department for failing to do an analysis to pinpoint the source of the runaway cleanup costs.

“That means [the Energy Department] does not know with certainty why this number keeps climbing,” Pallone said. “GAO has also found that [the Energy Department] fails to follow program and project management leading practices.”

The GAO report says the Energy Department lacks a single cleanup strategy, instead relying on local officials to decide what needs to be done.

“For example, the Hanford and Savannah River sites plan to treat similar radioactive tank waste differently, with Hanford’s efforts possibly costing tens of billions more than Savannah River’s,” the GAO report says.

In a separate Senate hearing Wednesday, Nevada government officials warned against a renewed plan to store nuclear waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain. They said local opposition would create a political battle that would only delay a permanent solution.

Their warning was prompted by a bill introduced by Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Sen. John Barrasso designed to revive the plan that was stalled by opponents a decade ago.

“I would like to find bipartisan agreement to move legislation to get our nuclear waste program back on track,” said Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican.

His comments were met by defiance from Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Nevada Democrat. She said she would ensure “not an ounce of nuclear waste makes it to Yucca Mountain.”

Yucca Mountain in the dry Nevada desert was chosen as the site for permanent storage of nuclear waste in a 1982 Energy Department study. Thousands of tons of the radioactive waste would be buried in dense cement casks under the mountain.

Nevada lawmakers said seismic activity and an Air Force weapons test range nearby made Yucca Mountain unsuitable as a storage site.

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