For more than 45 years, the U.S. Department of Energy and its predecessor agencies developed, produced and tested nuclear weapons. At its peak, 16 major facilities and more than 100 other sites spread across the nation were involved to some degree with America’s nuclear weapons program.
Four sites—Los Alamos in New Mexico, Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Hanford in Washington, and Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in Missouri—date back to the Manhattan Project in World War II. Most others became involved in the years following the end of the war as the United States greatly expanded its weapons production capability and developed an enormous nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. These sites and their diverse missions ranged from weapons research and design at national laboratories at Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore in California; plutonium production at Hanford and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina; uranium refinement at Mallinckrodt Chemical Works and Fernald in Ohio; uranium enrichment at Oak Ridge, Portsmouth in Ohio and Paducah in Kentucky; and weapons testing in Nevada.
By the late 1980s, as the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended, various nuclear arms reduction agreements shrank both nation’s nuclear arsenals, and America’s nuclear weapon production facilities shut down. Because the processes used to refine and enrich uranium, produce plutonium and shape the plutonium triggers all created tremendous amounts of radioactive and hazardous wastes, the shutdown of production also prompted the start of environmental cleanup at most of these sites.
In the past nearly 30 years, cleanup has been completed at 104 of the 120 DOE sites. DOE expects cleanup at several of the remaining sites to continue until 2070 or beyond. The 16 sites still undergoing cleanup activities include Hanford, and operating sites with multiple, ongoing missions including national security and research, such as the national laboratories in Idaho Falls, Idaho, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Savannah River. The Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), in addition to having an ongoing mission, currently functions as a national low-level waste disposal facility for both on-site and off-site generated defense low-level waste, mixed low-level waste and classified waste.
In most cases, at least some radioactive and chemical waste remains at these sites—in engineered landfills, buried deep in the soil or in the groundwater. At some sites, extensive amounts of contaminants remain or will remain once the cleanup is completed.
Some cleaned up sites have been turned over to local control for economic development or other purposes. Some sites will remain under DOE control in perpetuity. Regardless, DOE is obligated to ensure that these remaining contaminants do not harm people or the environment now or in the future. This represents DOE’s responsibilities of long-term stewardship.
Overview of the 2017 Edition
The State and Tribal Government Working Group (STGWG) Stewardship Committee first published “Closure for the Seventh Generation” in 1999. This 2017 edition continues the framework of the original report and assesses progress made by DOE in addressing LTS at sites controlled by DOE that contain radioactive and chemically hazardous waste and contaminants in the soil and water.
This edition summarizes the original report’s findings, conclusions and recommendations and provides updates to each of those sections based on knowledge acquired from work done from 1999 to 2017. This edition includes:
- Progress Since the 1999 Recommendations: This section reiterates the recommendations made by STGWG and summarizes the progress made by DOE to mitigate or address these recommendations.
- Overview of Site Summaries: Fifteen sites were selected to be studied by STGWG for the 2017 edition, including 10 sites from the 1999 report. The site summaries are a survey of how each site’s personnel or responsible party is planning and implementing a stewardship program.
- Findings and Conclusions: STGWG provides findings and policy-oriented conclusions based on the new site surveys and a review of findings and conclusions from 1999.
- Recommendations: STGWG updates several recommendations and offers additional recommendations to mitigate the identified LTS deficiencies.
- Appendices: The report includes a list of acronyms, the survey form and other additional resources such as a chronology of DOE’s national actions related to LTS and an overview of the history of STGWG. Site survey responses are not included in the print version of this report and can be found online.
The 1999 report references long-term institutional controls (ICs) as a common remedial element at DOE sites. ICs are administrative or legal mechanisms designed to control future use by limiting development and/or restricting public access to a site where there is residual contamination.
For this edition, STGWG considers land use controls (LUCs) to be those elements needed for a site to remain protective into the future. Consistent with current terminology, LUCs include both engineering controls or ECs (fences, barriers, disposal cover systems, etc.) and ICs (environmental covenants, deed restrictions, federal ownership, etc.). LTS is those actions that survey/monitor and maintain these LUCs and ensure that protection of human health and the environment is accomplished in perpetuity.
National Academy of Sciences Guidance
STGWG has not been alone in its efforts to study the issues of legacy waste and DOE’s cleanup work. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) produced several reports addressing DOE’s management and stewardship of legacy waste sites and related activities. (See the Appendix B: Resources.)
These reports further examine critical issues also supported by STGWG, including effective long-term institutional management systems, the fallibility and uncertainty of ICs and engineered barriers, and the fact that LTS must be taken into account during each phase of environmental management cleanup activities including early LTS planning processes. A recent report from 2013—“Sustainability for the Nation: Resource Connections and Governance Linkages”—puts forward advice on issues applicable to government processes including LTS. The NAS discusses the development of a decision framework, which focuses on the need for an ongoing process that allows for adaptive management and improved decision-making in the longer term.
NAS and STGWG agree that DOE should select remedies recognizing that cleanup and LTS are complementary stages in long-term management of hazards that cannot be eliminated completely. Allocating risks and costs over time in ways that will protect human health and the environment over decades and centuries to come keeps focus on the distant goal of implementing LTS in ways that ensure future generations have what they need to carry out stewardship responsibilities at DOE legacy waste sites.
DOE has relied on physical barriers and ICs to greatly limit public access to sites with radioactive hazards. DOE continues to promote a path toward maintaining ICs and developing land use plans. Many ICs may be required for hundreds to thousands of years, necessitating a significant commitment by the federal government. These long-term ICs are important but not exclusive elements of LTS.
DOE has made significant progress in reducing the “footprint” of real estate contaminated with radioactive and hazardous waste. This footprint has been reduced from 120 sites to the remaining 16 sites with active cleanup missions under the responsibility of the DOE Office of Environmental Management (DOE-EM). Surface acreage requiring cleanup has been reduced by over 90 percent, though extensive groundwater contamination still exists beneath some closed sites. The DOE Office of Legacy Management (DOE-LM) has responsibility for sites which have been cleaned up to meet current safety standards for human health and the environment, and remain in DOE control.
Major cleanup accomplishments and progress since 1999 is summarized in the individual site summaries included in this report. DOE developed a chronology of relevant departmental actions in response to the ongoing dialogue with STGWG members on LTS. The document “1999-2016 Chronology of Department of Energy Long-Term Stewardship Related National Primary Actions" can be found in Appendix C.
A notable organizational change at DOE was the establishment of DOE-LM. The office has LTS responsibility for 92 sites in 28 states and Puerto Rico, including at least eight sites that have transitioned from DOE-EM. Five sites are projected to transition from DOE-EM to DOE-LM between 2025 and 2050. Prominent among LTS sites are Rocky Flats in Colorado, Fernald in Ohio and Weldon Spring in Missouri. Fernald Preserve and the Weldon Spring Site have visitor centers to educate the public about site history as part of LTS activities.
STGWG Role and Vision for LTS
States and tribes have worked together with DOE for over 25 years on nuclear waste cleanup. STGWG provides a forum for enhanced communication at all levels among DOE and states and tribes affected by DOE sites and activities. STGWG representatives provide recommendations to ensure that operation and cleanup activities are in compliance with all applicable federal and state laws and regulations, and tribal rights, including those retained by treaty, conferred by statute, and protected by the federal trust responsibility. Recommendations aim to protect human health and safety and environmental health.
As cleanup has progressed, the focus has shifted. STGWG created a stewardship committee in 1998 due to states and tribal concerns about long-term actions and restrictions at DOE sites. STGWG re-established an LTS Committee in 2016 to continue to be responsive to DOE’s changing priorities and expanding work of DOE-LM. Current STGWG priorities include: LTS; natural resource damage assessment and restoration (NRDAR); and tribal issues related to cleanup and closure. LTS remains a top, enduring priority for STGWG states and tribes.
DOE’s input and action will provide a basis for ongoing dialogue and—more important— cooperative action, so LTS, NRDAR, and tribal considerations are woven into cleanup activities. This approach to cleanup can help DOE fulfill its responsibilities to protect human health and the environment for future generations while also potentially reducing natural resource service losses.
STGWG’s vision for LTS is capable stewardship invested in protection of land and resources affected by DOE sites. LTS activities can include monitoring and maintenance of LUCs, natural resource management, facilities management, cultural resource protection, access control (patrolling), data and records management, and regular surveying.
For tribes, natural and cultural resources are often one and the same. Tribes advocate for a vision of LTS with the key underpinning being the ability to ensure safe access and use of all available tribal resources, including those rights reserved under treaties, the U.S. Constitution, laws and court decisions defining the federal trust responsibility, and executive orders. The health of tribal populations is more susceptible because of site proximity to their lands and resources, which they rely on. A number of tribes and pueblos— including CTUIR, Pueblo de San Ildefonso, Jemez Pueblo and Yakama Nation—have developed their own exposure scenarios based on subsistence lifestyles to fully account for the potential health risks to tribal members from accessing and using resources at or near remediated sites.
STGWG member tribes have worked with DOE for decades and continue to seek a deeper understanding and awareness of the unique tribal and cultural issues faced at the sites. DOE reaffirmed its American Indian and Alaska Native Tribal Government Policy and issued DOE Order 144.1 and framework for implementation in 2009. The policy and related documents lay out DOE’s responsibilities and commitment in its interactions with tribes at headquarters and field offices. DOE has a responsibility to ensure that tribes have a seat at the table when actions that affect tribal resources are taken or when decisions are made. This fostered ability to participate in resource management and decision-making is an aspect of both the trust relationship between the United States and Native American tribes as well as tribal self-determination.
States work with DOE in regulatory and other oversight roles, which were strengthened by the Federal Facilities Compliance Act in 1992. Some states have adopted the Uniform Environmental Covenants Act (UECA) or other regulations and policies related to LUCs.5 Various legal documents— such as consent orders and federal facilities agreements—outline states’ roles and interactions with DOE regarding cleanup decisions. In addition to sites where active cleanup is underway, Missouri and Ohio—where the Weldon Spring Site, Mound Site and Fernald Preserve have transitioned to LTS status—remain involved with STGWG and provide insight into LTS implementation.
DOE needs to develop and maintain a robust LTS program to minimize risks to human health and the environment which future generations may experience from the presence of radioactive and chemical waste within the scope of the DOE complex. DOE should recognize the limits of the current LTS program and strive for a reduction in the need for LTS throughout the complex. Investments in LTS activities (including additional remedial cleanups) can minimize those risks for future generations. More consideration must be given to the fact that all engineered solutions eventually fail. LTS activities must be proactive and vigorous enough to identify potential failures before they happen and actual events as they occur.
The states and tribes of STGWG, together with DOE, share perspectives with the common goal of maximizing the ability of future generations to better understand and maintain sites in LTS status. STGWG urges DOE to address the findings and conclusions and implement the recommendations of this report by working with STGWG. STGWG looks forward to the continued strides in cleanup and stewardship activities with positive impacts for the seventh generation—and beyond.
DOE SITES BY THE NUMBERS
Number of DOE-LM sites that have transitioned from EM
Number of DOE-LM sites that have transitioned from other entities
Number of DOE-EM sites projected to transition to DOE-LM (2025-2050)
Number of EM sites that will transition all or portions to other entities (i.e., NNSA, Science, NE) for ongoing or new missions