Nuclear Waste:

DOE's Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project--Uncertainties May Affect Performance, Schedule, and Price

RCED-00-106: Published: Apr 28, 2000. Publicly Released: Jun 1, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO assessed the Department of Energy's (DOE) Advanced Mixed Waste Treatment Project's status and potential uncertainties with regard to: (1) successfully treating mixed waste; (2) meeting the project's deadlines; and (3) minimizing increases in the contract price.

GAO noted that: (1) changes in the technical approach have simplified the treatment of most of the waste, but successful treatment of almost one-fourth of the waste is less certain; (2) for the bulk of the waste, these changes have brought less complexity to the treatment process; (3) instead of incinerating about 75 percent of the waste and then putting it into a glass-like or cement-like form, DOE's contractor, British Nuclear Fuels Limited, Inc. (BNFL), determined that most of the waste could simply be mechanically compressed and then packaged; (4) for the remaining waste that was to be incinerated, however, recent events have forced BNFL to reexamine its approach; (5) in March 2000, in order to resolve a lawsuit over incinerating the waste and allow facility construction to move forward, DOE agreed to appoint a special panel of experts to identify possible alternatives to incineration; (6) alternatives could include trying to obtain a waiver from current regulations for transporting and disposing of organic substances or identifying another technology to treat the waste; (7) BNFL's plan for starting construction, originally set for May 1999, is now set for May 2000 at the earliest and will be postponed even longer; (8) this delay is also likely to delay the start of the facility's operations, one of the interim milestones in DOE's agreement with the state of Idaho, scheduled for March 2003; (9) the main cause for the delay was BNFL's overly optimistic assumption of the time needed for the state and the Environmental Protection Agency to review and approve the construction permits for the project; (10) changes in the requirements for permit applications and the search for alternatives to incineration also affected the permits; (11) as of April 2000, the permits still have not been issued; (12) despite some opportunities to reduce the $876 million contract price, including an $18 million reduction that occurred in January 2000, other uncertainties make it likely that the contract price will increase in the future; (13) the $18 million price reduction occurred after BNFL simplified the technology for treating most of the waste and, therefore, did not have to stabilize it before shipping it out of state; and (14) regarding potential price increases, two main uncertainties exist: (a) BNFL may be able to obtain additional payments for the costs associated with the delays in starting construction of the treatment facility; and (b) the costs associated with searching for an alternative to incinerating about one-fourth of the waste may also affect the contract price.

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