Nuclear Waste:

DOE Should Reassess Whether the Bulk Vitrification Demonstration Project at Its Hanford Site Is Still Needed to Treat Radioactive Waste

GAO-07-762: Published: Jun 12, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2007.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) is demonstrating a technology called bulk vitrification, in parallel with the Hanford waste treatment plant, to treat a portion of the radioactive waste stored in 177 tanks at its Hanford site in southeastern Washington state. DOE faces technical and management problems that have affected the original objectives to justify demonstrating the bulk vitrification technology. This report discusses the extent to which DOE (1) has managed the bulk vitrification demonstration project consistent with DOE management guidance and (2) continues to need a supplemental technology, such as bulk vitrification, to treat a portion of the low-activity tank waste. To assess DOE's management of the project, GAO reviewed reports by DOE and others and discussed the project with DOE and contractor officials.

DOE did not follow its management requirements during the first 2 years of the demonstration project in an effort to accelerate tank waste cleanup. This decision contributed to a nearly fourfold increase in estimated costs from $62 million to $230 million and a 6-year delay on the project. DOE did not conduct key internal and external reviews and did not fully develop or update key project planning documents as required. Without these management tools, DOE initially overlooked a number of technical and safety problems facing the project, such as uncertainties about the quality of the glass formed using the bulk vitrification technology and inadequate systems to shield radioactive material from workers and the environment. In late 2005, largely because of these problems, DOE began taking steps to implement its management requirements on the project. DOE's need for a supplemental technology to treat a portion of the low-activity tank waste at Hanford is no longer clear, but DOE does not plan to reassess the need for the project before completing the demonstration. Originally, DOE justified the bulk vitrification project as a relatively low-cost, rapidly deployable supplemental technology to assist the department to complete tank waste treatment at Hanford by 2028. However, none of the key components to this justification remains today. First, the price of a full-scale bulk vitrification facility has risen to $3 billion or more, about the same cost as adding a second low-activity waste treatment facility to the waste treatment plant. Second, the technology is no longer rapidly deployable because, as discussed above, the project faces at least a 6-year delay. Finally, it is now apparent that completing tank waste treatment at Hanford by 2028 is not possible under any reasonable scenario and that the waste treatment plant must operate for longer than DOE previously planned. This is significant since longer operating periods may reduce the need for a supplemental technology. Given the plant's estimated treatment capacity, more of the low-activity waste could be treated in the waste treatment plant facilities. Although DOE's management guidance specifies that when conditions have significantly changed DOE should reassess the mission need of a project, DOE does not intend to conduct this reassessment because DOE officials said they want more information about the technology. Proceeding with the demonstration project before reaffirming the need for the project increases the risk that DOE will spend an additional $137 million or more to develop a technology that may not be needed.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Matter for Congressional Consideration

    Matter: Congress may wish to consider withholding future funding for the demonstration until the department conducts and reports on a reassessment that clearly confirms the need for a supplemental technology at Hanford and bulk vitrification as a viable alternative for treating Hanford's low-activity waste.

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The department withheld funding on the bulk vitrification project until it conducted a reassessment of the need for the project. The department's reassessment ultimately resulted in the project's cancellation. Accordingly, DOE cancelled further funding on the project beginning in FY 2009. (See relevant status explanations below for details.)

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In light of major changes that have occurred on both the bulk vitrification demonstration and the waste treatment plant, which may affect the demonstration's costs, schedule, and mission justification, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management to report to Congress on the results of the reassessment before requesting additional funding for the bulk vitrification project.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE commissioned an external study of waste treatment plant operations, including supplemental technologies for low-activity waste. This external technical review, which was issued in November 2008, concluded that a bulk vitrification facility was not the best option for meeting the tank waste treatment schedule. In late 2008, on the basis of these reports and the problems encountered with the bulk vitrification demonstration project, DOE decided to cancel the bulk vitrification demonstration project. In March 2009, the assistant manager of DOE's Office of River Protection stated that DOE's tank waste life-cycle cost and schedule baseline, currently being revised, would no longer include a bulk vitrification facility. Consistent with our recommendation, DOE reassessed the need and benefits for bulk vitrification and ultimately decided to cancel the bulk vitrification project.

    Recommendation: In light of major changes that have occurred on both the bulk vitrification demonstration and the waste treatment plant, which may affect the demonstration's costs, schedule, and mission justification, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management to, if a reassessment shows that a supplemental technology is still needed, reassess the relative costs and benefits of demonstrating and deploying bulk vitrification compared with other viable technologies, such as constructing a second low-activity waste vitrification facility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our report, DOE reassessed the bulk vitrification demonstration project and other available technologies to treat low-activity waste at Hanford. DOE expanded the scope of an ongoing study, originally slated for release in June 2007 but delayed until November 2007 to address our recommendation. This study concluded that DOE should continue to pursue developing a supplemental technology to accelerate tank waste cleanup at Hanford but did not endorse bulk vitrification as the best option.

    Recommendation: In light of major changes that have occurred on both the bulk vitrification demonstration and the waste treatment plant, which may affect the demonstration's costs, schedule, and mission justification, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management to reassess the need for a supplemental technology to treat a portion of Hanford's low-activity tank waste. The reassessment should clearly identify how a supplemental technology would complement and be integrated with waste treatment plant operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE expanded the scope of an ongoing study, originally slated for release in June 2007 but delayed until November 2007 to address our recommendation. This study concluded that DOE should continue to pursue developing a supplemental technology to accelerate tank waste cleanup at Hanford but did not endorse bulk vitrification as the best option. DOE commissioned an external study of waste treatment plant operations, including supplemental technologies for low-activity waste. This external technical review, which was issued in November 2008, concluded that a bulk vitrification facility was not the best option for meeting the tank waste treatment schedule.

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