Securing U.S. Nuclear Material:

DOE Has Made Little Progress Consolidating and Disposing of Special Nuclear Material

GAO-08-72: Published: Oct 4, 2007. Publicly Released: Nov 5, 2007.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) recognizes that a terrorist attack on a DOE site containing material that can be used in a nuclear weapon could have devastating consequences. DOE currently stores special nuclear material at 10 sites in 8 states. To reduce security costs, DOE plans to consolidate the material at fewer sites and dispose of material that it no longer needs. In 2005, DOE chartered the Nuclear Material Disposition and Consolidation Coordination Committee (the committee) to plan for consolidation and disposition of DOE's special nuclear material. GAO was asked to (1) examine DOE's progress in consolidating and disposing of special nuclear material and (2) determine if DOE's plans to consolidate and dispose of special nuclear material can be implemented on schedule and within cost. To do this, GAO reviewed the committee's plans and discussed consolidation and disposition with DOE officials.

Although the committee has spent nearly 2 years planning to consolidate and dispose of special nuclear material, it has drafted only two of the eight implementation plans it intends to develop; and complexwide consolidation and disposition activities have not yet begun. The committee has drafted plans for consolidating and disposing of plutonium-239 and for disposing of uranium-233. Under the committee's plutonium-239 plan, surplus plutonium currently stored at the Hanford Site, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and Los Alamos National Laboratory will be consolidated at the Savannah River Site. Much of the plutonium-239 would then be prepared for permanent disposition through vitrification--a process that mixes nuclear material with molten glass, which is then poured into metal canisters where it hardens. The vitrified plutonium-239 would be stored on site inside large canisters filled with vitrified high-level radioactive waste and, if DOE's plans are realized, later be permanently disposed of at a geologic repository to be built at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Under the committee's draft uranium-233 plan, most of DOE's uranium-233 will be disposed of by mixing it with other uranium isotopes to convert it into a more stable form that requires less security and that is suitable for long-term storage or disposition as radioactive waste. DOE has begun activities to modify an existing facility that can perform this process at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where most of DOE's uranium-233 is currently stored. Other sites that store uranium-233 would either ship it to Oak Ridge for processing or send it to DOE radioactive waste disposal facilities in New Mexico or Nevada. The remaining six plans are still in early stages of development. Factors that have contributed to DOE's limited progress in finalizing plans include leadership changes on the committee and uncertainty over who in the department has final approval authority for the committee's plans. Because of such factors, DOE is unlikely to meet its goal of completing all eight implementation plans by December 2008. DOE cannot ensure that its plans are carried out on schedule and within cost because the plans drafted to date have only limited descriptions of organizational roles and responsibilities and lack performance measures to monitor the department's progress toward meeting its consolidation and disposition goals. DOE officials stated that the plans do not need to include such information because a forthcoming revision of a DOE order on nuclear material management will define organizational roles and responsibilities and the department already uses performance measures. However, the revision to the DOE order is not scheduled to be completed until late 2007, and the performance measures that DOE uses are not specifically intended to monitor activities required to implement consolidation and disposition plans.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE Order 410.2, signed by the Deputy Secretary of Energy in August 2009, specifies that the Program Secretarial Officer of the DOE headquarters program office (including NNSA) that manages nuclear material covered by the order is responsible for approving plans for material under the program office's control, in cooperation with the DOE Office of Nuclear Materials Integration.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that Department of Energy (DOE) begins implementing its plans to consolidate and dispose of special nuclear material in a timely manner, the Secretary of Energy should specify who in the department--the Nuclear Materials Disposition and Consolidation Coordination Committee, the committee's Executive Steering Committee, or the Secretary himself--is responsible for final approval of plans.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE Order 5660.1B (Management of Nuclear Materials), originally issued in May 1994, was revised to reflect DOE's current organizational structure and to better define roles and responsibilities relative to nuclear materials management. The new DOE order (DOE Order 410.2) on nuclear materials management was signed by the Deputy Secretary of Energy in August 2009. This order defines the roles and responsibilities for various program offices across the department as they relate to consolidation and disposition of DOE's special nuclear material. It specifies which departmental entities are responsible for ensuring that consolidation and disposition occur, who pays for those efforts, and who (DOE's new Office of Nuclear Material Integration) is responsible for coordinating the activities of the numerous DOE organizations involved in the consolidation and disposition of special nuclear material.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should require that DOE's implementation plans for consolidating and disposing of special nuclear material include a description of the organizational roles and responsibilities for consolidating and disposing of DOE's special nuclear material such as information about which program offices or sites are responsible (1) for ensuring that consolidation and disposition occurs, (2) for paying for consolidation and disposition activities, and (3) for coordinating the activities of the numerous DOE organizations involved in consolidation and disposition.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's Order 410.2 on nuclear materials management established a Nuclear Materials Advisory Board. DOE's Office of Nuclear Materials Integration in cooperation with the advisory board will now review integrated schedule data for the consolidation and disposition of special nuclear material and will produce guidance for developing milestones and performance metrics. A National Strategic Plan for Management of Nuclear Materials has been developed that defines strategies for all of the Department's nuclear materials including those excess to program needs.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should require that DOE's implementation plans for consolidating and disposing of special nuclear material include performance measures that will allow DOE and the Congress to monitor the department's progress in consolidating and disposing of special nuclear material, including milestones for shipping special nuclear material for consolidation and outcome-based measures, such as quantities of special nuclear material that have been consolidated and disposed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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