Radioactive WasteInterior's Continuing Review of the Proposed Transfer of the Ward Valley Waste Site Gao ID: RCED-97-184 July 15, 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 summarized this report in testimony before Congress; see: Radioactive Waste: Interior's Review of the Proposed Ward Valley Waste Site, by Gary Jones, Associate Director for Energy, Resources, and Science Issues, before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. GAO/T-RCED-97-212, July 22 (12 pages).
GAO noted that: (1) in deciding to prepare a second supplement and the issues it should address, Interior relied primarily on: (a) a report by the National Academy of Sciences on the proposed disposal facility at Ward Valley; and (b) new information and analysis from the U.S. Geological Survey on the migration of radioactive materials in the soil from a now-retired disposal facility at Beatty, Nevada; (2) in selecting other issues to address in the supplement, Interior relied on the comments of environmental groups, Native American tribes, and others; (3) eleven of the 13 issues that Interior is addressing in the new supplement, such as the effects of a disposal facility at Ward Valley on Native Americans, had been considered in California's licensing process and in previous environmental statements prepared by the state and Interior's Bureau of Land Management; (4) the other two issues--the findings and recommendation of the Academy and the information on the Beatty facility--are new; (5) in announcing that it would prepare the new supplement, Interior gave as its reasons and impasse with California over land-transfer conditions and the age of the original environmental impact statement; (6) Interior did not state that its decision to prepare the supplement was based on significant new information that would require it to prepare a supplement to the original environmental impact statement; (7) in fact, much of the new information that has become available is favorable to the proposed disposal facility; (8) Interior's underlying reasons for preparing a second supplement were that it should provide a forum for the resolution of the public's concerns about the facility and independently determine if the site is suitable for containing radioactive wastes; (9) Interior, however, has neither criteria nor technical expertise in radiological safety matters to independently determine if the site is suitable for a disposal facility, nor has it sought technical assistance from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) or, with one exception, the Department of Energy; (10) California, however, has net all of the state's procedural and substantive requirements for licensing the proposed facility; and (11) consequently, the state and its licensee have sued Interior to determine, among other things, if Interior has exceeded its authority with respect to radiological safety matters, such as determining the site's suitability.