Nuclear Cleanup of Rocky Flats:

DOE Can Use Lessons Learned to Improve Oversight of Other Sites' Cleanup Activities

GAO-06-352: Published: Jul 10, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 10, 2006.

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In 2001, when GAO reported on the cleanup of the Department of Energy's (DOE) Rocky Flats site, a former nuclear weapons production facility, the cleanup was behind schedule and over cost. In October 2005, the contractor declared that it had completed the cleanup much earlier and at less cost than DOE and the contractor had anticipated 5 years earlier. GAO was asked to determine the (1) factors that contributed to the cleanup's early completion, (2) remaining work and total costs, (3) measures to assess whether the cleanup achieved a level of protection of public health and environment consistent with the cleanup agreement, and (4) lessons the Rocky Flats cleanup may offer for other DOE cleanup projects.

Four factors contributed to the early completion of Rocky Flats' cleanup: (1) DOE's and the contractor's ability to overcome numerous challenges, (2) the use of an accelerated cleanup process, (3) site-specific characteristics that limited the scope of the contamination, and (4) the contractor's financial incentive to finish the work quickly and safely. Although the cleanup is complete, its sufficiency has not yet been ascertained; key steps remain before the planned Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge that will occupy the site can open to the public. For example, in about November 2006, the regulatory agencies--the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment--plan to issue their joint final decision on the sufficiency of the cleanup and any risk posed by residual contaminants. The total cost of the cleanup, since 1995, is about $10 billion in constant 2005 dollars. This cost includes contract costs of about $7.7 billion (including contractor fees of about $630 million), long-term stewardship and pension liabilities estimated at about $1.3 billion, and other costs of nearly $1 billion. Although numerous measures in place to assess the cleanup appear adequate to judge the sufficiency of the cleanup, DOE did not effectively carry out some aspects of its oversight responsibilities. Among the assessment measures are completion of the regulatory process, activities undertaken to verify remedial actions, and reviews by independent and federal entities. The regulatory agencies have approved the cleanup of 360 areas of known or suspected contamination at the site. Data supporting the cleanup of these areas form the basis of regulatory decisions regarding the cleanup's sufficiency. Accordingly, we reviewed the contractor's controls intended to ensure the quality of these data and found them to be robust. However, DOE lacked assurance that the controls were working as intended because it did not independently assess the quality of these key data. One official told us that DOE was involved daily in reviewing documents and discussed with the contractor any data quality issues that arose. DOE has identified and implemented at other sites some lessons from Rocky Flats, but DOE has not systematically tracked lessons learned at all of its cleanup sites, thus potentially losing the benefits of such lessons.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has taken actions to implement this recommendation. DOE conducted a gap analysis to uncover areas where its oversight contractors' controls over data quality might be insufficient. The results of this analysis led to revisions of DOE's policy for oversight as well as its implementing order. The revised policy and implementing order highlight requirements for DOE to review the contractor data quality assurance systems as well as to assess their effectiveness.

    Recommendation: To improve DOE's oversight of cleanup activities, its conduct of cleanup verification activities, and its monitoring of lessons learned at DOE cleanup sites, the Secretary of Energy should ensure that DOE independently assesses contractors' controls over data quality.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE took two actions to address this recommendation. First, DOE issued a memo in 2006 clarifying its requirements for independent verification of cleanups and the radiological release of property. Second, DOE prepared a report in 2008 summarizing the lessons learned from independent verification activities across DOE.

    Recommendation: To improve DOE's oversight of cleanup activities, its conduct of cleanup verification activities, and its monitoring of lessons learned at DOE cleanup sites, the Secretary of Energy should clarify guidance on whether and how to conduct cleanup verification activities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE took two actions to address this recommendation. First, DOE published a report on the lessons learned from the Rocky Flats cleanup and was made available to staff in DOE?s Office of Environmental Management (EM) operations, so that approaches outlined in the report could potentially be used at other sites. Second, DOE issued a policy in October 2008 stating that EM is committed to the implementation of the DOE Operating Experience Program (OEP) at EM sites, a program that exists to ensure systematic identification, collection, screening, analysis, evaluation, dissemination, and use of lessons learned, among other things. The October 2008 policy also established oversight mechanisms for providing assurance that lessons learned were tracked by establishing responsibilities and methods for line oversight to implement the DOE OEP across EM.

    Recommendation: To improve DOE's oversight of cleanup activities, its conduct of cleanup verification activities, and its monitoring of lessons learned at DOE cleanup sites, the Secretary of Energy should assess the costs and benefits of developing a method to track the lessons learned from cleanup activities at DOE sites across the nation, including methods for determining whether lessons are being applied at applicable locations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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