The panel, to be organized as a subcommittee of the Environmental Management Advisory Board, will be given "broad purview" to review tank waste cleanup programs and recommend ways to improve efficiency, control costs and meet deadlines.
A review of the Hanford Waste Treatment & Immobilization Plant Project will be the group's first mission, with a report due later this year, said Ines Triay, the department's assistant secretary for environmental management.
The program's intent is to create a broad analysis of the waste program, she said. "We want to make sure we take a department-wide view," she said. "It will be a complex-wide effort."
The panel's recommendations will be channeled through the Energy Department's Environmental Program for further action, she said.
"This particular committee we are talking about would go into great detail," she said. "These are very technical issues and this is a very technical task."
Tom Clements, the southeastern nuclear campaign coordinator for Friends of the Earth, said adding another layer of scrutiny could help the Office of Environmental Management demonstrate to another independent review panel -- the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board -- that the energy department is working to address potential problems with its mammoth waste program.
"I don't think the formation of the panel is an indication of specific problems with the SRS high-level waste program," Clements said. "Rather, I think it pertains to the daunting waste management issues facing DOE at Hanford, where construction of the $12 billion vitrification plant continues."
According to the new panel's mission statement, the new plant under way at Hanford must treat 53 million gallons of waste in 177 underground tanks -- a task that will take several decades.
At Savannah River Site, there were originally 51 underground tanks at the site's H and F areas. Two were closed in the 1990s, and the remaining tanks contain 36 million gallons of waste.