Page images

spent fuel and low-level waste storage facilities is a practical solution which would help meet both national and local needs.

Realistically, the perspective of all parties concerned with West Valley are complicated by the specter of long-term responsibilities for a contaminated site and by the concerns involved in locating a facility for any type of nuclear waste storage at any particular location.

Thus, while our effort was directed at evaluating all the facts and circumstances surrounding West Valley, it is difficult in the final analysis for GAO to factor into its work all the related political considerations that in our system of Government, Congress must take into consideration in reaching its decision.

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. We will be glad to respond to your questions.

Mr. SWIFT. Thank you very much, Mr. Peach. The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Illinois for 5 minutes.

Mr. CORCORAN. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

I want to say to the representatives of the General Accounting Office, we very much appreciate your work on the legislation before us and your testimony this morning.

The only question I would like to get some clarification on is the question I think you raised in your report, wherein you suggest that the high-level waste material at West Valley would not be a good test case.

As you well know, the legislation before us would provide that a demonstration project on vitrification presumably be conducted in order to test the characteristics and in order to provide useful information for the rest of the country as to any of the problems associated with vitrifying the high-level waste, which is one of the three remaining after reprocessing. If I understand your analysis and your report, you are suggesting that this is a very unusual kind of high-level waste that is at West Valley, and therefore would not have the test properties which could be applicable to some other high-level waste also coming out of reprocessing which might occur at some other place.

Am I correct in that characterization of your report?

Mr. PEACH. Let me clarify that, Mr. Corcoran. At West Valley, there are about 600,000 gallons of high-level waste. We state it would be more appropriate to characterize this waste cleanup project as a remedial action project rather than a demonstration project. The Federal Government is already moving through the Department of Energy, to carry out a demonstration of waste solidification at Savannah River, where it has 22 million gallons of similar waste stored.

So, plans were already underway for a much larger size demonstration project than is anticipated at West Valley.

Also, demonstrating the ability to solidify this type of waste has already been done, although not for an extended period of time, at DOE's Pacific Northwest Laboratory.

There is one other factor. If we ultimately go to commercial reprocessing, would we have the same kind of waste to deal with, or would we go directly through reprocessing to a solid waste form. So the question of whether a commercial reprocessing plant would generate the same kind of waste and the same liquid proper

ty as the waste at West Valley is something you should take up with people with a more technical background.

Mr. CORCORAN. So you would describe the project that is contemplated in this legislation as not a demonstration project but rather a cleanup project, a remedial project, I think, to use your word? Mr. PEACH. Yes, we think it would be more appropriate to characterize it as a remedial action project which may have some demonstration value. All the information we got from DOE indicated that the plans were to go ahead with the Savannah River project, independent of West Valley. Remember that the Federal Government has about 50 million gallons of high-level waste that it must decide to do something with.

Mr. CORCORAN. Is all of that 50 million at Savannah River? Mr. PEACH. Not all of it is there. Some is at Hanford in the State of Washington, and some in Idaho Falls in Idaho.

Mr. CORCORAN. Is there testing going on anyplace other than at Savannah River?

Mr. PEACH. The main thrust of the testing at this point, as I understand it, is at Savannah River.

Mr. CORCORAN. One other question, and it developed in the course of the testimony earlier this morning based on the comments of the State energy director from the State of New York. He used the words "mutually exclusive" in order to describe the prospects of having this demonstration project at West Valley and to have ultimately some sort of away-from-reactor storage capacity at the same site.

Have you looked at that? Is that from a practical standpoint, again to use his words, practical, and possible coordination of two responsibilities at the West Valley site?

Mr. PEACH. The timing may be a problem. In our report we suggest that there are three problems that have to be dealt with at West Valley-the high-level waste, the spent fuel stored there, and low-level waste. We believe the most practical solution would be to try to deal with the total range of issues.

Timing may be a factor in making a judgment about away-fromreactor storage. As you know, there have been bills submitted the last 2 years or so authorizing away-from-reactor storage. We are building up spent fuel, more is being stored at reactor sites; ultimately we have to make the judgment as to whether we will allow expanded storage at the reactor site or whether we want to move the spent fuel away from reactor storage, or whether we want to move away from our position of deferring reprocessing.

Mr. CORCORAN. Is the timing problem to which you refer related to the practical incompatibility of away-from-reactor storage and this demonstration or remedial project, as you describe it, or is it timing in the sense of making a decision on West Valley with respect to the purpose of this bill in conjunction with the policy that the Congress should establish, soon we would hope, on the away-from-reactor storage question and other related issues? Is that the timing you are talking about, the timing of the decision? Mr. PEACH. The timing problem, it seems to me, depends on where you sit in this particular case. As I understood the position enunciated by the Governor this morning, and his official accompanying him, they said it would not be appropriate to take a position

on away-from-reactor storage until a decision had been made on a national program in this area.

I think the possibility exists for a State to take the initiative in terms of handling their own away-from-reactor storage problem absent the Federal Government moving ahead. So I think it depends more on where you sit as to whether that is an insurmountable problem.

Mr. SWIFT. The time of the gentleman has expired.

The Chair recognizes the gentleman from New York.

Mr. LUNDINE. Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Just one question. Isn't it true DOE didn't even make a budget request for the Savannah River project so that project is a project only in the minds of the people at Savannah River? Is there a budget for this project?

Mr. CRONIN. I think DOE would be the best one to answer that question. DOE's budget people told us that there is a $6 million request in its budget specifically for the Savannah River project.

Mr. LUNDINE. I think DOE would be the best one to answer a number of things that you have alleged here earlier. Isn't it also true with respect to the Pacific Northwest, that the project was done at the laboratory level? Is that not correct? The Pacific Northwest project didn't begin with high-level liquid waste; is that not correct?

Mr. PEACH. No; Congressman, I don't believe that is the case. The Pacific Northwest project was done in the laboratory. It is my understanding it was done at the same scale or level of operation as would be planned at West Valley. The only difference, it was not done for an extended period of time.

Mr. LUNDINE. It is my understanding they just shipped spent fuel rods there, cut them up and solidified them into glass at a laboratory scale project. That is not your understanding?

Mr. PEACH. It is not my understanding; I think once they chopped them up, they have to run them through a process in order to make them into liquid before they can solidify them. Mr. SWIFT. The Chair recognizes counsel, Mr. Ward.

Mr. WARD. You said in your statement that DOE, Nuclear Fuel Services, and NRC have told you that the low-level waste and spent fuel facilities could probably be safely reopened. In what form did they tell you this?

Mr. PEACH. I didn't quite understand that.

Mr. WARD. In what form? Was it oral or in writing?

Mr. PEACH. It was orally provided during our discussions with officials during the course of our work.

Mr. WARD. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. SWIFT. Minority counsel?

Mr. BIENSTOCK. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Peach, to follow up on Congressman Corcoran's question, Mr. Larocca testified that there would be a physical incompatibility between proceeding with the vitrification and consideration of the site as a spent fuel storage site; more than a policy, he indicated that due to the nature of the vitrification process that during the time of the project there would not be an away-from-reactor storage facility established at West Valley. Do you have any insight on that?

Mr. PEACH. While we were undertaking our examination, we had no understanding of any problem. My colleague, Mr. Cronin, advised me that over the course of the last week or two we now understand that DOE is having some concerns about whether they could have an away-from-reactor fuel storage facility and a solidification facility there at the same time, and that they were doing some further environmental impact analysis.

This seems to be something that has been shifting over the course of the last few weeks. Just exactly where it has shifted and where we stand, I don't know.

Mr. BIENSTOCK. Thank you very much.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. SWIFT. Mr. Peach, Mr. Cronin, Mr. Howard, we thank you very much for your testimony.

The Chair would announce the plans of the subcommittee. We are going to take one more witness, Mr. Dircks, now, and then we will adjourn until 1:30, when we will take the testimony of the remaining three witnesses, and the chairman of the subcommittee will chair the meeting at that time.

The Chair calls William J. Dircks, Acting Executive Director for Operations, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and welcomes you. For the record, we would like you to indicate the name of your colleague and your written testimony will, without objection, be submitted as part of record, and we would be happy to have you summarize.


Mr. DIRCKS. Thank you, Mr. Chairman. With me is Mr. Richard Cunningham, Director of the Fuel Site and Safety Division for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

I will submit the full statement for the record, and I will try to skip through it and summarize, if that is satisfactory.

Mr. SWIFT. That would be very satisfactory. Without objection, so ordered. [See p. 72.]

Mr. DIRCKS. In the testimony we come out quite strongly in support of the project proposed by this bill from the standpoint of public health and safety. We recognize that the bill does not address or attempt to solve the entire set of problems associated with the future disposition of the West Valley site. Nonetheless, the bill does authorize the project that is needed to solve the most important outstanding technical issue, that is, of solidifying the highlevel liquid waste in storage at the site.

I will briefly go through the questions that you asked us to address, Mr. Chairman.

The first question concerns the high-level liquid waste storage system and the safety conditions associated with that system. There are two types of waste storage systems at West Valley. The largest volume of high-level liquid waste is contained in the neutralized waste tank.

We have been conducting over the past several years safety evaluation of the safety of that tank and other tanks that are up there. The data developed thus far from these evaluations lead us to believe that the wastes are being stored safely. However, we still have other tests that we want to perform using much more advanced techniques and technology. We are in the process of getting those tests carried out at the site.

The second question you asked us to address was the capability to remove the neutralized waste from the tanks at West Valley. The principal technical problem associated with waste to be removed from those tanks is caused by the formation of a mud-like sludge from the neutralization of the waste in those tanks. The sludge is denser than the liquid portion of waste and settles to the bottom of the tank. The bottom of the NFS tanks is a labyrinth of intricate structural components consisting of stay-bolts, girders, I-beams, and columns which impede the simple method of resuspending the sludge.

DOE has undertaken waste retrieval programs for the high-level waste tanks at the Savannah River plant and at Hanford. Although Savannah River and Hanford tanks do not possess the same complex network of structural steel as found in the West Valley tanks, many internal interferences do exist, particularly in the bottom cooling coils at some Savannah River tanks.

We think through the experience, through the mockup work and through the preconceptual work that DOE is doing with the Savannah River tanks, that this technology can be transferred to allow the removal of the sludge from those tanks at the West Valley site. Your final two questions addressed to the Commission concern several aspects of NRC regulatory authority with respect to this proposed high-level waste solidification project. Owing to the interest in the regulatory aspects of this process, I will go ahead and read the statement beginning on page 6.

NRC's regulations permit us to act upon virtually any conceivable project proposed by the commercial nuclear sector. Our ability to regulate activities conducted by the Department of Energy is not as broad. For example, the Energy Reorganization Act gives us specific direction to license a high-level waste repository, but the act does not specifically require that we license a Department of Energy solidification plant that would process wastes to be placed in such a repository. The present language of Congressman Lundine's proposed bill requires that the Department of Energy consult with the NRC in carrying out this project. Our understanding is that the word "consult" means that the Department must submit safety analysis reports for our independent review and evaluation and provide such information as we may require. In addition, we interpret the word "consult" to mean that the department must take some sort of action based upon our comments and recommendations. They should either accommodate our comments or explain why any such comments are not accommodated. Furthermore, all documentation associated with submittals by the Department of Energy and with evaluations by the NRC would be available in the public record. Finally, we interpret the word "consult" to mean that the NRC would not issue a license to DOE. Any hearings regarding the solidification process, itself, would not be NRC hear

« PreviousContinue »