Energy plans Internet tool for nuclear cleanup research

The Energy Department is planning a first-of-its-kind Internet resource to allow the public to monitor the $6 billion-a-year cleanup of the nation's nuclear research and weapons facilities.

The Central Internet Database, slated for deployment in January, will integrate six DOE databases on nuclear waste and provide links to nearly 60 online databases and reports relating to the department's cleanup activities.

DOE is developing the Internet site as an information resource for state and local officials, contractors and residents living near contaminated sites. The database also would help DOE to better coordinate its environmental programs.

The project, presented publicly for the first time at a meeting this month, appears to be "one of the first efforts by a federal agency to undertake a large database integration project," said James Werner, director of strategic planning and analysis with DOE's Office of Environmental Management. The Environmental Protection Agency has been working for years to integrate its myriad databases, but has made limited progress.

More than 100 DOE sites nationwide, including its major laboratories, are cleaning up spent fuel and other radioactive waste generated during Cold War research and weapons production. The program involves, in part, shipping collected waste to off-site storage facilities and restoring contaminated soil and water.

The DOE database was ordered under a court settlement reached last winter with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental group that claimed the department had failed to disclose information about its cleanup plans. Although some of the information to be included in the database is already publicly available, some has never been released, and none of it has been provided through a single, searchable source.

"At a basic level, it will permit [the public] to identify the hazards that exist at sites in and around their communities," said David Adelman, a project attorney with NRDC's Nuclear Program. "We view that as an essential element of government openness and the public's right to know."

Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of the Oakland, Calif.-based Western States Legal Foundation, a DOE watchdog group, said she hopes to use the database to monitor whether facilities are doing their cleanup properly but also to challenge future military programs that might generate similar types of waste.

"Early in the environmental review process for a new military program, I would like to be able to look at the historic data on that type of technology and be able to introduce that information into the public debate about whether it's a good idea to go forward and build that facility," she said.

Meanwhile, Werner said DOE will be able to use the database internally, for example, to coordinate with state officials its shipments of waste to states. "Up to now, we have not had a readily accessible, comprehensive database to help with those interactions and planning," he said. In addition, the database would help new vendors compete for cleanup contracts by giving them more information about the work that needs to be done, Werner said.

DOE has not completely defined its requirements for the database, said Tom Shaffer, a vice president with Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc., the vendor that is designing it. "It's sort of premature for us to comment" on which technologies might be employed for the project, he said.

Werner said DOE wants to provide users with the capability to do keyword searches and generate standard reports. "In addition we're considering the usefulness of being able to download the database or portions of the database to construct your own searches," he said. "There might be a benefit to having some sort of search engine that does more advanced searches than what's available right now."

The Internet site may be structured similarly to the EPA's Envirofacts data warehouse, which provides a gateway to several agency databases and tools for generating maps and reports. There are "real differences" between the DOE database and Envirofacts, Werner said, especially in terms of its scope, but background materials distributed for the meeting said Envirofacts "is generally considered a good example of user-interface software."

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