Radioactive WasteInterior's Review of the Proposed Ward Valley Waste Site Gao ID: T-RCED-97-212 July 22, 1997
Although Congress in 1980 directed the states to take responsibility for disposing of commercially generated low-level radioactive waste, only California has authorized the construction of a disposal facility--to be built on federally owned land in Ward Valley, California. GAO found that the Interior Department's insistence on new environmental studies before transferring the property is not based on significant new information. Eleven of the 13 issues that Interior is assessing, such as the effects of a disposal facility at Ward Valley on Native Americans, had already been considered in California's licensing process and in earlier environmental statements prepared by the state and the Bureau of Land Management. Moreover, much of the new information that has become available is favorable to the proposed disposal facility. Interior believed that the second supplement would provide a forum for resolving the public's concerns about the facility and would allow an independent determination of the site's suitability as a disposal facility. Interior, however, lacks the technical expertise in radiological safety matters to independently determine the site's suitability, and it has not sought technical assistance from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or--with one exception--the Department of Energy. California, however, has met all of the state's procedural and substantive requirements for licensing the proposed facility.
GAO noted that: (1) Interior cited a May 1995 report on the Ward Valley site by the National Academy of Sciences and information developed by its U.S. Geological Survey in 1994 and 1995 about the migration of radioactive elements in the soil from a former disposal facility at Beatty, Nevada, as its basis for preparing the second supplement; (2) it also stated that it would address nearby Indian sacred sites in the supplement; (3) after obtaining and analyzing information from the public, including environmental groups, Native Americans, and others, Interior decided to address 10 more issues in the supplement and to expand the issue of sacred Indian sites to include a variety of issues pertaining to Native Americans; (4) eleven of the 13 issues that Interior is addressing in the second supplement had been considered in California's licensing process and in previous environmental impact statements prepared by the state and Interior's Bureau of Land Management; (5) the other two issues, the findings and recommendations of the Academy and the information on the Beatty facility, are new; (6) the reasons cited by Interior for preparing a second supplement were an impasse with California over land-transfer conditions and the 5 years that had passed since the original environmental impact statement was issued in April 1991; (7) two other reasons, however, have shaped Interior's action on the Ward Valley issue over the last several years; (8) specifically, Interior believes that it should provide a forum for resolving public concerns and independently determine if the site is suitable for a disposal facility; (9) it should be noted that California has met all of the state's procedural and substantive requirements for licensing the proposed facility; (10) consequently, the state and US Ecology, the company licensed by the state to construct and operate the disposal facility, have sued Interior to determine, among other things, if Interior exceeded its authority regarding radiological safety matters, such as independently deciding on the site's suitability; and (11) thus, whether or not an independent determination of the site's suitability is within Interior's discretion will be decided in the courts.