This study examines concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) in its planning for transition from active waste site management and remediation to what the department terms “long-term stewardship. ” It examines the scientific, technical, and organizational capabilities and limitations that must be taken into account in planning for the long-term institutional management of the department's numerous waste sites that are the legacy to this country's nuclear weapons program. It also identifies characteristics and design criteria for effective long-term institutional management.
Of the sites in DOE's inventory, few will be cleaned up sufficiently to allow unrestricted use. At many sites, radiological and non-radiological hazardous wastes will remain, posing risk to humans and the environment for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. In some cases, contaminants have migrated off site or are likely to do so in the future. Future changes in the uses of sites and nearby areas make predicting risks even more difficult. In response to the technological, budgetary, and societal problems posed by these sites, DOE plans to rely on institutional controls and other stewardship measures to prevent exposure to residual contaminants following activities aimed at stabilization and containment. One message that emerges from this study, however, is that effective long-term stewardship will likely be difficult to achieve.
In this study it is argued that, while stewardship as defined by DOE is essential, a much broader-based, more systematic approach is needed. For any given site, contaminant reduction, contaminant isolation, and stewardship should be treated as an integrated, complementary system: one that requires foresight, transparently clear and realistic thinking, and accountability. Today's waste management actions should become an integral part of stewardship planning. Scientific, technical, and organizational deficiencies or knowledge gaps should be acknowledged frankly and, where possible, research investments should be made to correct them. The long-term institutional management plan for a legacy waste site should strive for stability, balanced by flexibility and provisions for iteration over time. No plan developed today is likely to remain protective for the duration of the hazards. Instead, long-term institutional management requires periodic, comprehensive reevaluation of those legacy waste sites still presenting risk to the public and the environment to ensure that they do not fall into neglect and that advantage is taken of new opportunities for their further remediation.