July 30, 2001
Energy Department Drops Contract to Perform Environmental Impact Statement for Radioactive Metals Recycling
WASHINGTON, D.C. ? Responding to scrutiny from public interest organizations and a lawyer who has represented nuclear workers, the Department of Energy (DOE) last week revoked its contract with Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) to evaluate plans to release and recycle radioactive metals from DOE facilities.
At a meeting with DOE officials last Monday, Public Citizen and other citizen organizations raised questions about the process that led DOE to hire SAIC to perform a programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) for the proposed recycling. The DOE canceled the contract on Wednesday.
The DOE’s choice of SAIC earlier this year followed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s (NRC) termination of another SAIC contract ? also related to radioactive waste recycling ? upon the discovery that the company had a conflict of interest within its regulatory agency contracts.
The conflict stems from SAIC?s role as a “regulatory compliance” partner with British Nuclear Fuels Limited (BNFL), which in 1997 was awarded a quarter-billion dollar DOE contract to recycle radioactive nickel at the DOE?s Oak Ridge, Tenn., facility. The NRC subsequently awarded SAIC a separate contract to provide independent expertise as part of its effort to establish standards for the recycling. SAIC prepared the NRC’s NUREG 1640, the official NRC report that “documents the technical basis for the [NRC] to use in developing regulatory standards for clearing equipment and materials with residual radioactivity from nuclear facilities.” In effect, while profiting from the BNFL project to recycle radioactive materials from DOE facilities, SAIC was hired by the NRC to write the standards that would regulate recycling at commercial nuclear power facilities. In early 2000, following citizen complaints that SAIC had a conflict of interest, the NRC terminated this SAIC contract.
Citizen groups raised the same conflict-of-interest objections about the subsequent DOE contract with SAIC to perform the environmental assessment.
In September 2000, the DOE’s Inspector General reported that the BNFL activities had actually increased risk to the public, stating that “BNFL did not perform accurate surveys of contaminated metals before the contractor released the metals for recycling on the open market. ? As a result, there was increased risk to the public that contaminated metals were released from the site.”
In last Monday’s meeting with DOE representatives, the concerned groups demanded to see various documents regarding the SAIC contract award, including the contract itself and all conflict-of-interest disclosure materials that SAIC should have provided to the DOE.
“While this contract withdrawal is a small step in the right direction, the DOE still needs to do much more to guarantee that its radioactive waste and materials won’t end up in commerce or the general environment,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The DOE’s contract with SAIC was either a horrible lapse in judgment or a slap in the face to Americans who do not want to be exposed to additional radiation. In any case, it’s ridiculous that this PEIS is even being performed. The current suspension on recycling metals should be made permanent and should be expanded to all other radioactive materials.”
Dan Guttman, a Washington, D.C. attorney who has represented nuclear workers, said: “It is critical for the public to understand that responsible DOE officials evidently did not red-flag the conflict-of-interest and responsible contractor issues raised by the award. The good news is that they were responsive to citizens who pointed these red flags out. This situation just demonstrates how crucial it is to have citizen involvement in every step of the process. Transparency is key in demonstrating contract award responsibility.”
The DOE has no plans to cancel or postpone its public meetings on radioactive recycling, which currently are slated to begin on July 31 and will be held primarily in locations and venues that are typically friendly to the nuclear industry. For instance, the meeting in Oak Ridge is to be held at the American Museum of Science and Energy ? previously known as the American Museum of Atomic Energy, which is part of the DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory nuclear complex.
“The release of radioactive metals into public commerce is of national concern, ” said Trisha Christopher, program assistant for Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. “Public hearings should accurately reflect those communities that will be directly affected. The SAIC documents, as well as the contract for the company that is approved to perform the PEIS, should be made public to allow concerned citizens to study those materials well before any public scoping meetings occur. The selection of a PEIS contractor can say a lot about the agency’s actual goals.”
Added Public Citizen policy analyst David Ritter: “The only acceptable outcome to this PEIS ? one that prioritizes public health over the desires of the nuclear industry ? will be a permanent and unambiguous ban on the release or recycling of all radioactive materials and contaminated property. To legalize the recycling of radioactivity into consumer products indicates a callous disregard for public health.”