Nuclear Regulation

Slow Progress in Identifying and Cleaning Up NRC's Licensees' Contaminated Sites Gao ID: RCED-95-95 April 24, 1995

For years, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its predecessor, the Atomic Energy Commission, paid little attention to how licensees using radioactive materials were cleaning up their sites after ending research, manufacturing, and other operations. Some sites were ignored for years, often decades, before cleanup was begun. At sites where cleanup was attempted, it was often done improperly, leaving harmful levels of radiation. This report evaluates NRC's progress in (1) identifying all former materials licensees' sites that require additional cleanup and (2) ensuring that sites in NRC's Site Decommissioning Management Plan--those facing difficult or prolonged cleanups--are addressed in a timely manner. This report also discusses factors that impede the timely cleanup of sites.

GAO found that: (1) NRC has reviewed about 75 percent of its terminated licenses to identify sites that need additional cleanup and has found 22 sites that exceed its radioactive contamination guidelines; (2) NRC is seeking additional information on another 895 terminated licenses to determine if those sites need additional remediation; (3) NRC will not know the total number of sites that will require additional cleanup until it completes its review; (4) NRC expects to complete its initial review in 1996, but it will take several more years to conduct site inspections to determine contamination levels; (5) although NRC established SDMP in 1990 to ensure the timely remediation of sites facing difficult or prolonged cleanups, it has made little progress in cleaning up those sites; (6) NRC has issued additional regulations that require licensees to document their activities that could affect decommissioning operations; (7) the delays in cleaning up contaminated sites increase the risk of human exposure to radioactive wastes; and (8) factors that have delayed or halted cleanup at SDMP sites include difficulties in disposing of large quantities of a certain radioactive waste, litigation, coordination and negotiations between affected parties, and time consuming administrative reviews of decommissioning documents.

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