IV. The Environmental Cleanup

A. Introduction

The Department of Energy's management of its program for dealing with the radioactive and hazardous wastes at its former nuclear weapons production sites and the national laboratories has been criticized for its expense and the slow pace of cleanup. The program is of great size and the problems that plague it, developed over decades, are acute and pervasive. Involving the national laboratories in more sweeping ways is an important part of a number of needed improvements.

B. Background

Disposal practices for radioactive and chemically hazardous wastes from the start of the Manhattan Project of World War II, excepting high level waste, consisted of shallow burial, of injection underground using deep or shallow wells, the use of cribs or settling ponds, or direct release to rivers or streams. Some of the Atomic Energy Commission's (AEC) practices resulted in the exposure of uninformed members of the general public to substantial levels of radiation and in later years there have been well-publicized leaks of toxic and radioactive materials.

Environmental concerns in the U.S. started rising in the 1950s, initiating a new era of citizen participation, and major changes, in environmental matters. Over three dozen pieces of Federal environmental legislation were enacted by the early 1990s. The AEC and later the DOE, did not move as U.S. industry did, maintaining that they were exempted from compliance with the bulk of U.S. environmental legislation.

Although beset by increasing discontent and criticism over its practices, DOE was slow to accommodate. It continued its old patterns of behavior until, in 1984, it lost a key lawsuit brought against it. Amendments to major pieces of Federal environmental legislation now explicitly require DOE compliance. The result has been to make DOE subject to the same array of Federal environmental standards that U.S. industry had already largely adapted to. The DOE found itself 10 years behind in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance.

In 1989, the Department announced that it would have all of its sites cleaned up by 2019. This same year it created the Office of Environmental Restoration and Waste Management (since renamed the Office of Environmental Management, or EM) to have responsibility for cleanup of the complex. The EM annual budget has risen from $1.6 billion in 1989 to $6.2 billion in 1994 and will exceed $7 billion when the Savannah River Site is transferred to it from Defense Programs. It has become the largest single item in the DOE 's $19 billion budget. It is the largest environmental restoration and waste management program in the world.

Driven by heightened public and Congressional concern, DOE established, in some haste, greatly enhanced requirements governing its own operations. It initiated major growth in the number and scope of environmental, safety and health regulations, nuclear safety regulations and DOE Orders. To ensure compliance, the number of audits, reviews and appraisals was increased dramatically.

DOE now has had to cope with the series of legal commitments to cleanup performance, with milestones and penalties for non-compliance, that it signed with state and federal bodies, for each of its sites, Inadequate attention was given by DOE to the feasibility of these commitments. One example was the Tri-Party Agreement at Hanford, signed by DOE, the EPA and the state of Washington's Department of Public Health. It mandates cleanup of the site by the year 2019.

The Department has been hindered by the press of Federal legislation and regulation by other Federal bodies. A dozen or more pieces of legislation all laid on DOE burdens with which it has been poorly equipped to deal. Moreover by the 1990s, all the states had their own environmental legislation, much of it binding on the Department and not always consistent with its Federal counterpart.

The Department also is hindered by lack of credibility and mistrust, not only on the part of community stakeholders but by Federal and state legislative and regulatory bodies. Some members of these bodies continue to disbelieve the Department, as well as many of its contractors, even when they are telling the truth.

C. Main Findings

1. Technical Challenges

The large quantities of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste that are at the center of concern exist in a broad variety of forms, toxicity, and storage or placement conditions. For the entire 3365 square miles of the DOE complex, now or formerly devoted to weapons-related activities there are, for example:

2. Program Assessment

Two yardsticks are useful in judging the EM program: progress toward cleanup goals and the costs incurred, the latter related to the effectiveness of program management.

The remediation program has accomplished far less than many wish. The Government Accounting Office[8], in a recent review of management changes needed to improve applications of technology in the program, concluded that while "DOE has received about $23 billion for environmental management since 1989, .. little cleanup has resulted. Experts agree that many cleanup technologies in use are extremely costly and offer only short-term solutions." A May 1994 Congressional Budget Office (CBO) Study[9] noted that DOE "has been criticized for inefficiency and inaction in its cleanup efforts. ... [and] has been severely criticized because of the small amount of visible cleanup that has been accomplished." These conclusions are shared by many senior DOE personnel, both within and outside the program.

One of the consequences of the troubles has been the enhancement of a syndrome common to large bureaucracies: risk aversion. It has a name: "the Hanford Syndrome." It has become widespread and severe in the EM program. Its symptoms are an unwillingness to alter familiar behavior patterns, to stick with unproductive or failing procedures, to enhance tendencies for excessive resource allocation and regulation, and to oppose innovation. It is an important element in sustaining unproductive patterns of work.

The Tri-Party Agreement at Hanford, and similar ones elsewhere, have proven to constitute major constraints on remediation progress because, in many instances, they are unrealistic, not having had proper input from those experienced in actual cleanup. The milestones they incorporate, along with penalties for noncompliance, force continued activities, some of which are make-work and should be abandoned. Other activities should be delayed or modified so as to await more effective and less costly technologies. Virtually no one believes the timetables are achievable and DOE has already been forced into renegotiations, as at Hanford in January 1994. Elsewhere DOE has been paying fines, owing to the Department's incapacity to meet deadlines, as at Rocky Flats where $27 million is now due for missing cleanup deadlines.

Probably the most important reason behind the slow pace of assessment and cleanup is the low quality of science and technology that is being applied in the field. Many of the methods, such as "pump and treat" for contaminated ground water remediation, cannot provide the claimed benefits. There is a lack of realization that many - and some experts believe most - existing remediation approaches are doomed to technical failure. Others would require unacceptable expenditures and much extended time to reach their stated objectives.

Over time, an increasing proportion of DOE resources has been going into DOE management in an attempt to lower environmental costs. The Congressional Budget Office report concluded that "at least 40% of the cleanup program's funds are devoted to administrative and support activities, a level that many reviewers have considered excessive. ...[they] represent a proportion that is significantly higher than the share spent by some other government agencies that may be performing similar tasks."[10]

DOE provides the most expensive environmental services of any government agency, with costs 40% above the average in the private sector. When DOE first became aware of these high costs, the Department's response was to try to lower them by an increase in management attention: it added between 1200 and 1600 Full Time Equivalents to its management and oversight personnel overseeing the remediation program.

How much the program will cost when and if completed cannot now be assessed with confidence. Estimates in the range $300 billion to $1 trillion have been made by DOE officials, but a lack of specific goals and achievable schedules as well as the absence of some critical remediation technologies make fixing the sum difficult. Some part of the facilities' contamination cannot be wholly cleaned-up; portions of the Hanford site, as well as others, will still be radioactive after many thousands of years.

D. Disconnects

One useful way of understanding the nature of the problems plaguing the DOE program is to look at "disconnects," potentially discordant sets of activities whose discord the Department has been incapable of harmonizing. There are disconnects in three areas of major importance to the EM program: (1) science/engineering and applications, (2) regulatory, oversight and compliance and (3) goals, objectives and means, the last involving the stakeholders affected by the program. These persistent disconnects have had numerous adverse consequences on the program.

1. Science/Engineering - Applications

There is a marked incapacity within the Department's EM program to evaluate current and prospective technologies in a wide-ranging and competent manner based on well-assessed risks. Without the resulting information it is not possible to introduce improved technologies into the applications stream or to modify or eliminate inefficient or ineffective ones. The gap between what might be applied and what is applied is well known within the program; it is called the "Valley of Death." In part it reflects the fact that there is inadequate communication between those attempting to remediate the contaminated sites and the research community that holds the key to identifying and readying advanced and powerful technologies.

One of the injurious consequences of the gap has been the failure to carry out a full program to characterize the waste remediation challenge across the many DOE sites: the nature of the risks presented by the diverse array of problem radioactivity and hazardous materials, the identification of applicable and available technologies to deal with them, as well as their limitations, and provide schedules, costs and expected effectiveness of reasonable and acceptable programs of remediation. The laboratories have not been tasked to perform such a characterization although they are well aware of its lack and have the technical capacity to carry it out.

The new-technology chain is seriously broken within DOE. There is little basic research being carried out relevant to the problems at hand and there is little rigorous analysis to learn from the experience in the field or from current tests. There is, for example, breakdown in communication and cooperation between organizational units within EM, from headquarters to field offices to sites. Technologies are being developed independent of field and site needs that are subsequently not field implemented because of a lack of customer interest or involvement or because they replicate work done elsewhere.

The root deficiency, which makes the science/engineering - applications disconnect a persistent problem, is the absence of a sustained, high-quality, scientific/technical review capability at a high level within DOE as well as a lack of leadership and poor management of the science/engineering - operational interface.

2. Regulatory - Oversight - Compliance: Management Disconnects

The host of self-inflicted, complex and frequently contradictory or redundant regulations and requirements that the laboratories and remediation efforts are subject to has become an enormous obstacle. Compliance can be quite burdensome, expensive and frequently fails to improve the affected activities. The influence of this disconnect is not confined to the EM program alone. It affects most every DOE activity, including those in both the multiprogram and the program-dedicated laboratories. Its consequences are greatest in the EM program simply because this program is DOE's largest.

In many circumstances there are harsh non-compliance provisions, and legal personal and civil penalties for failure. People are intimidated, afraid of going to jail, and this forces an excess conservatism, sometimes bordering on inaction. There is no dispute that this aggravates inherent tendencies toward risk aversion, a problem for other reasons, as noted earlier.

The managerial defects are discussed in the Appendix and are the subject of Section VII. That section should be considered an important adjunct to this present contribution for these defects have played an important role in causing and sustaining the problems in the EM program.

3. Goals - Objectives - Means: Stakeholders Interests

DOE has not set out to determine, in concert with affected stakeholders, the goals it should pursue, nor the standards to be met in the EM program. There is a disconnect with the customer base. Are waste-contaminated soils to be removed, remediated, left in place? What exactly is to be done to and with low-level waste? What to do about the large quantity of tritiated groundwater? What site conditions are the activities at Rocky Flats intended to achieve? No one is entirely sure. The January 1994 alterations to the Hanford Tri-Party Agreement were, in part, a consequence of some of these issues surfacing.

One result of the disconnect is too much attention to the immediate, acute problems, such as possible tank leaks, explosions, overheating, with relative neglect of longer range difficulties. The immediate matters can be serious, and must be dealt with, but the lack of a systems approach to the problems and their solutions, and thus lack of a synoptic view, means a poor priority list and provides bad choices. All of these elements lead to much ineffectual, albeit expensive activities.[11]

E. The Future

1. Within DOE

A well-functioning EM program with clearly defined goals is surely within reach, given a Department commitment to move forward. The model that many refer to was the hugely successful Manhattan Project of World War II, with its exquisite blend of basic and applied science underlying a large production complex, based on previously unknown physical phenomena. From it emerged the testing, production and delivery of the weapons employed just at the end of the conflict. The scientific challenge today is less profound, the managerial ones more so. A crisp, well-defined program, fully utilizing national laboratory skills, could prove a model within the Department and for the nation on how to run a major enterprise. We now have a poignant situation, for technology known to senior scientists and engineers both in the national laboratories and in the country's universities is in the wings that, appropriately applied, could dramatically alter the current prospects.

2. The National Laboratories

Because the EM program so badly needs high quality science and engineering development, the national laboratories together have a critical role to play, a role very much larger than at present. The laboratories have unique resources and facilities and are accustomed to the complex, interdisciplinary blend of sciences and technologies that are the mark of large, technically-driven enterprises. They are really the only organizations that can pursue the large-scale basic research and development so badly needed to replace those conventional approaches that blight much of the current EM program. Industrial site-contractors cannot carry out such tasks effectively for much commitment to basic research puts the meeting of compliance deadlines at risk, dangerous in today's climate.

Most of the national laboratories confront large ranges of environmental problems on their own sites which, while regrettable, can serve as test beds for the development of a broad spectrum of improved remediation, waste minimization and cleanup technologies for application on far larger scales.

It may be important to designate lead laboratories for major programs to be established from among the laboratories to provide the synoptic view necessary to implementation of the scientific and technical studies and demonstrations necessary for a swift and efficient program. Most all of the national laboratories have important contributions to make to the EM program; a lead laboratory's role would be one of coordination and overall systems analysis and integration for a particular major effort. This does not mean assuming management responsibilities. The responsibilities fall to DOE management and its contractors and should remain there.

An additional benefit from designation of such lead laboratories is that they could become test beds for improvements in DOE regulatory and management practices and DOE Order compliance as well as for enhanced public participation. In brief, they can act as sites for valuable pilot programs, demonstrating the benefits of positive changes.

Formal institutional connections will be required with a number of other Federal bodies whose skills or whose regulatory authority relate to the tasks of the remediation program. These include the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense, the Bureau of Mines, and others. A lead laboratory is the natural place for much of this linkage to be coordinated. Here is where special regulatory provisions must be hammered out so as not to hobble research and development work unnecessarily. Constraints on environmentally injurious activities necessary to "production" cleanup and remediation efforts are not always appropriate to research, where special relief is often required and typically difficult or impossible to get.

The recommendation to create lead laboratories could well arise naturally, in the wake of other beneficial changes, but it might be well to anticipate its arrival. The first task of one lead laboratory would be to organize the long-missing characterization of the remediation challenge mentioned earlier. This must be carried out with stakeholder participation for reasons discussed above. It would be a major program as it would require the participation of many of the Department's laboratories and EM sites . Thoughtful options would then soon appear.

There are difficulties to organizing laboratory participation. One is the need to insure neutrality or to have a sure mechanism for dealing with real or perceived drift from neutrality. A second is the absolute need for strong leadership of the whole EM program. The lead laboratory cannot provide this leadership; it must come from above.. Fortunately resolving the second difficulty would go a long way to resolving the first.

3. The Nation

One consequence of the activities of the United States' environmental movement is the massive environmental cleanup underway at numerous designated cleanup sites as well as at many other places in the nation. There are 60,000 EPA Superfund sites, 2400 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) sites, 22,00 state-funded sites, and 7200 DoD sites. The total U.S. cleanup bill is estimated to be about $1.7 Trillion dollars. The program is going slowly. "Of the $15 Billion that has already been spent on Superfund cleanups (across the nation), roughly 75% has gone to legal fees and related costs."[12] The need for more cost effective cleanup has already become an urgent matter.

Many of the problems are very similar to those that DOE faces. In particular DOD, EPA and others are struggling with the same technology and management issues as DOE. They will badly need the technical skills that a well-organized, technically competent DOE effort, with national laboratory help, could provide. For example, volatile organic compounds in arid and non-arid soils and ground water is one of the most common environmental problems in the US. Lawrence Livermore has already made important contributions to the technology of dealing with them.

There is abundant evidence for the beneficial role the national laboratories could play in helping resolve national problems in the numerous advances that they have already made. Ocean-climate interactions are being modeled by Los Alamos in support of Global Climatic Change studies with similar global and regional atmospheric modeling at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Many of the laboratories have made contributions in the areas of environmental damage and resource base assessment and diagnostics.

The Department must take positive steps to encourage this attractive opportunity. It will, among others actions, have to consider reducing its cost-recovery fees levied on all "Work for Others." These fees now signal that contributions to the tasks faced by other agencies of government are not a high priority with the Department. The national laboratories could look forward to being available to the entire government system as a powerful environmental technical resource, a great national need. They should become in fact, as well as in name, national laboratories, saving our nation significant resources and improving cleanup efficiency. If the national laboratories do not fill this role, there will be no satisfactory alternative, and the need will remain substantially unmet. In any event the experience base and the technological developments arising from the continuing EM program from the laboratories', industry's and research universities' contributions should be shared with the country on a continuing basis.

A broader vision sees the U.S. environmental and resource problems as a subset of many similar ones throughout the world. Science and technology must play a key role in coping with them. A strong DOE program could contribute at all levels. We are the nation best equipped to contribute solutions. Within the US, the Department of Energy marshals the best of these skills through its national laboratories and they could be put at the world's service.

F. Concluding Remarks

The Atomic Energy Commission, and for many years the Department of Energy, broke the unwritten contract between these arms of government and the people they were to serve. The results, contamination on an enormous scale and a bitter distrust, imply a deep obligation to carry through the cleanup that has now been launched, with efficiency, speed, and a decent respect for the opinions and needs of those affected. This cannot be accomplished as things are now. The changes required are clear; marshal the skills high in the DOE to bring about the managerial changes that are required; raise the quality of science and engineering in the program, among others things by utilizing adequately the great power available in the national laboratories as well as the power among DOE contractors and in the universities. The changes only need to be set in place and exploited.

G. Recommendations

  1. Sustained improvements in DOE management and leadership are needed both at senior levels in the Department and in positions below the Deputy Assistant Secretary level. It is clear from the above material that those portions of the problems that DOE can control stem from managerial deficiencies at the top levels in the Department.

  2. A comprehensive remedy to the array of problems plaguing the EM program can only be achieved by a substantial commitment and high priority addressing the challenges of this program. These must originate high in the Department. It seems clear that this must occur at the Under Secretary level. This does not imply disassembling the present EM structure under an Assistant Secretary. It does mean a technically adept, flexible and perceptive management of that and related efforts within DOE that acts with power.

  3. Closing the science/engineering - applications disconnect should be dealt with by the establishment of an "Environmental Advisory Board (EAB)," reporting to the Under Secretary. This should be a permanent Board and should include mostly scientists and engineers from within and without the Department and the laboratories, as well as stakeholders, to ease public acceptance of its recommendations. A good review capability could be provided by the EAB to identify needs so as to stimulate, with Department support, the required basic research, development and demonstrations. Such advances which should then be applied, by capable management, to improve field remediation activities. The Board must have influence and visibility in order to fulfill its role as an instrument of the Under Secretary. The High Energy Physics Advisory Panel (HEPAP) and the Nuclear Science Advisory Committee (NSAC) have such visibility, enhanced by their ability to give testimony to the Congress and their access to the Office of Science and Technology Policy. They are both widely believed to be quite successful. With members having a spread of skills, the Board should be able to provide technical oversight, flag management and regulatory disconnects as they arise and provide the synoptic view of the array of problems now lacking.

  4. The national laboratories together have a critical role to play, a role very much larger than at present, in performing high-quality science and engineering for the Environmental Management program. Their principal contributions would be:

    The level of support necessary to implement major laboratory involvement as recommended here is small compared to the sums currently expended in the program. As an example, an increment of $400 million annually for the laboratories with a ramp-up over time to twice that sum is roughly the scale needed to pursue research and development in an improved program. In view of the large fraction of the nearly $7 billion annual EM budget that clearly is misspent now, we see no serious difficulty in redirecting funds that are already flowing. No supplemental money should be required.

  5. The Department must take positive steps to make the national laboratories available to the entire government system as a powerful environmental technical resource. They should become in fact, as well as in name, national laboratories. The Department must take positive steps to encourage this attractive opportunity. It will, among others actions, have to drop, or greatly lower, its cost-recovery fees levied on "Work for Others."

  6. DOE must address more forcefully the task of renegotiating the unrealistic or unfeasible elements of the cleanup compliance agreements that it has made with State and Federal agencies. These are now impediments from risk management, technical feasibility, and public perception standpoints as well as forcing large and fruitless expenditures. The Federal government's Superfund legislation also incorporates unrealistic goals; legislation in 1993, which failed to pass, addressed many of the issues which make many current remediation schemes impractical and expensive. The new Congress, as well as DOE, should revisit the issue, benefiting DOE's remediation efforts and other cleanup under Superfund.

  7. Much more comprehensive involvement by members of the affected public in decision making should be employed to reduce the bitterness, distrust and distress that continues to provide a troublesome element in DOE's conduct of its affairs.

  8. The bulk of the EM environmental challenges, although presenting no immediate threats to public health or safety, still should be addressed with a heightened sense of urgency. They have already been changing from acute to chronic problems, are becoming calcified, and the vast flow of funds into the program acts as an anesthetic, numbing the Department, State regulatory agencies and affected stakeholders, hindering and delaying beneficial change.

To Section V, The Science-Engineering Role

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