Nuclear and Worker Safety:

Limited Information Exists on Costs and Reasons for Work Stoppages at DOE's Hanford Site

GAO-09-451: Published: May 7, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 8, 2009.

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The Department of Energy's (DOE) Hanford Site in Washington State stores 56 million gallons of untreated radioactive and hazardous wastes resulting from decades of nuclear weapons production. DOE is constructing facilities at the site to treat these wastes before permanent disposal. As part of meeting health, safety, and other standards, work at the site has sometimes been suspended to address safety or construction quality issues. This report discusses (1) work stoppages from January 2000 through December 2008 and what is known about them, (2) the types of costs associated with work stoppages and who paid for them, and (3) whether more effective regulation or oversight could have prevented the work stoppages. GAO interviewed knowledgeable DOE and contractor officials about these events. When documentation was available, GAO obtained DOE and contractor accident and safety incident reports, internal DOE and independent external evaluations, and costs.

DOE officials reported that from January 2000 through December 2008, activities to manage hazardous wastes stored in underground tanks and to construct a waste treatment facility have been suspended at least 31 times to address safety concerns or construction quality issues. Federal regulations governing contracts do not require contractors to formally report work stoppages and the reasons for them, and DOE does not routinely collect information on them. As a result, supporting documentation on work stoppages was limited. DOE reported that work stoppages varied widely in duration, with some incidents lasting a few hours, and others lasting 2 years or more. Officials reported that about half the work stoppages resulted from concerns about worker or nuclear safety and included proactive safety "pauses," which typically were brief and taken to address an unsafe condition that could potentially harm workers. The remainder of the work stoppages occurred to address concerns about construction quality at the waste treatment plant. Under the terms of the cost-reimbursement contracts for managing the tanks and constructing the waste treatment plant, DOE generally pays all costs associated with temporary work stoppages and does not require the contractor to separately track these costs, although DOE and the contractors do track some costs under certain circumstances. For example, the costs for cleaning up, investigating, and implementing corrective actions were collected for a July 2007 hazardous waste spill at one of the tank farms; these costs totaled over $8 million. The contractors, too, can face financial consequences, such as reduction in earned fee or fines and penalties assessed by DOE or outside regulators. For example, DOE may withhold payment of a performance award, called a fee, from contractors for failure to meet specified performance objectives or to comply with applicable environmental, safety, and health requirements. For the majority of DOE's reported work stoppages, supporting documentation was not available to evaluate whether better oversight or regulation could have prevented them. For 2 of 31 work stoppages where some information was available--specifically, accident investigations or prior GAO work--inadequate oversight contributed to the work stoppages. For example, the accident investigation report for the tank farm spill found that oversight and design reviews by DOE's Office of River Protection failed to identify deficiencies in the tanks' pump system design, which did not meet nuclear technical safety requirements. Similarly, in 2006, GAO found that DOE's failure to effectively implement nuclear safety requirements contributed substantially to schedule delays and cost growth at Hanford's waste treatment plant. With regard to regulations, however, officials from DOE, the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, and DOE's Office of Inspector General said they did not believe that insufficient regulation was a factor in these events.

Status Legend:

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  • 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

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To provide a more thorough and consistent understanding of the potential effect of work stoppages on project costs, the Secretary of Energy should establish criteria for when DOE should direct contractors to track and report to DOE the reasons for and costs associated with work stoppages, ensuring that these criteria fully recognize the importance of worker and nuclear safety.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has updated its Financial Management Handbook to include provisions in Chapter 15: Cost Accounting (March 2013) to address this recommendation. Specifically, Chapter 15 directs contractors to track and report to DOE the reasons for costs associated with work stoppages {paragraph 10.a.2,3, and 4} and establishes criteria under which work stoppages should be tracked. Specifically, events that result in delays of work exceeding two consecutive business days or incur costs exceeding $100,000 must be tracked. The following reasons for delays must be reported: those that result from disasters, disruptions caused by security and accident investigations, stoppages resulting from violations of nuclear safety requirements, and shutdowns directed by officials involving emergencies or safety issues. {paragraph 10.b}

    Recommendation: To provide a more thorough and consistent understanding of the potential effect of work stoppages on project costs, the Secretary of Energy should specify the types of costs to be tracked.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has updated its Financial Management Handbook to include provisions in Chapter 15: Cost Accounting (March 2013) to address this recommendation. Specifically, DOE requires that contractors maintain internal procedures and accounting mechanisms to separately record the costs associated with a work stoppage and that all costs associated with the following types of activities resulting from a work stoppage be accounted for: maintaining a facility in a stand down mode; shutting down the facility or activity; restarting a facility or activity; transitioning facilities and personnel to other approved work; cleanup, investigative, and remediation activities; and non productive labor resulting from idleness or no activity taking place. {paragraph 10.a.2 and 3}

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