Nuclear Waste:

Hanford Tank Waste Program Needs Cost, Schedule, and Management Changes

RCED-93-99: Published: Mar 8, 1993. Publicly Released: Mar 19, 1993.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the status of the Hanford waste vitrification plant, focusing on: (1) technical and other issues that affect the Tank Waste Remediation System (TWRS); and (2) the Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to end interim storage of high-level radioactive waste at the site.

GAO found that: (1) DOE has not determined how many samples it will need for waste characterization and lacks adequate facilities for analyzing the samples; (2) the Tri-Party Agreement requires DOE to analyze 309 samples by 1998, but DOE is several years behind schedule; (3) DOE has not developed techniques for retrieving and pretreating Hanford's tank wastes; (4) if the plant begins operations by December 1999 in accordance with the Tri-Party Agreement, the amount of pretreated waste may be insufficient to operate the plant on a continuous basis; (5) in 1988, DOE estimated that waste disposal would cost $14 billion, but 1992 estimates indicate the cost could amount to $50 billion; and (6) continued adherence to the Tri-Party Agreement could result in construction of facilities that are not cost-effective or do not work.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE renegotiated the Tri-Party Agreement with EPA and the State of Washington. The new agreement, signed in January 1994, established a comprehensive program for managing and disposing of Hanford's high- and low-level radioactive waste.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE has a realistic program schedule and adequately funds each program element, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Field Office to renegotiate the Tri-Party Agreement with the Department of Ecology and EPA to establish a comprehensive program schedule that includes all elements of Hanford's tank waste disposal program, including changes proposed in the TWRS program.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE reports the TWRS life-cycle cost estimate to Congress in the Baseline Environmental Management Report that Congress requires DOE to submit each year as an annual budget supporting document.

    Recommendation: To strengthen DOE ability to make sound program decisions and to ensure that Congress is informed about the potential costs of the TWRS program, the Secretary of Energy should include the estimated life-cycle costs of TWRS in annual TWRS appropriation requests.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In fiscal year 1996, DOE developed a life-cycle cost estimate of $36 billion for the Tank Waste Remediation System (TWRS) program. (See GAO reports: RCED-96-56 and RCED-96-165) DOE considers this cost estimate to be as reliable as practicable based on actual costs, best estimates, and numerous assumptions about how it planned to remediate Hanford's tank waste. In fiscal year 1996, DOE adopted a new privatized tank waste remediation approach. Under this new approach DOE plans to continue to track costs and develop new life-cycle cost estimates as contracts are awarded.

    Recommendation: To strengthen DOE ability to make sound program decisions and to ensure that Congress is informed about the potential costs of the TWRS program, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Field Office to develop a reliable life-cycle cost estimate for TWRS.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE designated the TWRS program as a major systems acquisition. As such, DOE is required to develop and report the project life-cycle costs to Congress.

    Recommendation: To strengthen DOE ability to make sound program decisions and to ensure that Congress is informed about the potential costs of the TWRS program, the Secretary of Energy should amend DOE project management orders to require that major programs, like TWRS, develop life-cycle cost estimates.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In February 1996, DOE decided that it would not build its own vitrification plant and issued a request for proposals to private companies to initiate a privatized approach under a fixed-price contract to immobilize Hanford's high-level radioactive waste. Contract awards are expected to be made in September 1996. Through this action, DOE has shifted the responsibility, risk, and cost for facility design, construction, and operation to private companies. Because the responsibility for demonstrating that the plant can be started and operated efficiently has been shifted to the private sector, this recommendation is no longer applicable to DOE.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE designs and constructs the most cost-effective treatment facilities, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Field Office to begin construction of the plant only after the design is sufficiently complete that DOE can demonstrate that the plant can be started and operated efficiently.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE successfully renegotiated the Tri-Party agreement that required construction of a vitrification plant in 1993. Under the new agreement, a vitrification plant will not be needed until 2009. Accordingly, DOE reduced its fiscal year 1994 budget request by $55 million. This delay will allow DOE time to assess retrieval and pretreatment options prior to making its decision on how the high-level waste will be immobilized.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE designs and constructs the most cost-effective treatment facilities, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Field Office to seek the concurrence of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Washington Department of Ecology to postpone construction of the Hanford vitrification plant until a final decision is made on how high-level waste will be immobilized.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  7. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: As part of developing a TWRS life-cycle cost estimate, DOE has developed funding priorities for TWRS program activities, based on major system acquisition requirements, budget constraints, and Tri-Party Agreement milestones. In addition to developing priorities for DOE-managed program elements, DOE has shifted major program costs and responsibilities for supporting the development of needed technologies and processes to the private sector as part of its tank waste privatization initiative.

    Recommendation: To ensure that DOE has a realistic program schedule and adequately funds each program element, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Manager of the DOE Richland Field Office to implement an integrated program management approach that includes establishing funding priorities that ensure that all elements receive adequate funding to support the development of needed technologies and processes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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