Nuclear Waste:

Challenges to Achieving Potential Savings in DOE's High-Level Waste Cleanup Program

GAO-03-593: Published: Jun 17, 2003. Publicly Released: Jul 17, 2003.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees one of the largest cleanup programs in history--the treatment and disposal of 94 million gallons of highly radioactive nuclear waste from the nation's nuclear weapons program. This waste is currently at DOE sites in Washington, Idaho, and South Carolina. In 2002, DOE began an initiative to reduce the estimated $105-billion cost and 70-year time frame of this cleanup. GAO was asked to determine the status of this initiative, the legal and technical challenges DOE faces in implementing it, and any further opportunities to reduce costs or improve program management.

DOE's initiative for reducing the costs and time required for cleanup of high-level wastes is still evolving. DOE's main strategy for treating high-level waste continues to include separating and concentrating much of the radioactivity into a smaller volume for disposal in a geologic repository. Under the initiative, DOE sites are evaluating other approaches, such as disposing of more waste on site. DOE's current savings estimate for these approaches is $29 billion, but the estimate may not be reliable or complete. For example, the savings estimate does not adequately reflect uncertainties or take into account the timing of when savings will be realized. DOE faces significant legal and technical challenges to realize these savings. A key legal challenge involves DOE's authority to decide that some waste with relatively low concentrations of radioactivity can be disposed of on site. This authority is being challenged in court, and a prolonged challenge or an adverse decision could seriously hamper DOE's ability to meet its accelerated schedules. A key technical challenge is that DOE's approach relies on laboratory testing to confirm separation of the waste into high-level and low-activity portions. At the Hanford Site in Washington State, DOE plans to build a facility before integrated testing of the separation technology--an approach that has failed on other projects in the past, resulting in significant cost increases and schedule delays. DOE is exploring proposals, such as increasing the amount of high-level waste in each disposal canister, which if successful could result in billions of dollars in additional savings. However, considerable evaluation remains to be done. DOE also has opportunities to improve program management by fully addressing recurring weaknesses GAO has identified in DOE's management of cleanup projects.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to this recommendation, in fiscal year 2004, DOE proposed legislative language aimed at clarifying the agency's authority for designating waste as incidental to reprocessing. Federal legislation was passed in October 2004 (P.L. 108-375, sec.3116) that provided DOE the authority to make these waste determinations at its Savannah River and Idaho National Laboratory sites. Although the law specifically excluded the Hanford Site, this recommendation has been implemented for the Savannah River Site and Idaho National Laboratory. Financial accomplishment reports were approved: GAO-05-1051A (SRS) and GAO-06-1546A.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DOE's accelerated cleanup initiative is effective and that cleanup of high-level waste proceeds in a timely and cost-effective manner, the Secretary of the Department of Energy should seek clarification from the Congress regarding DOE's authority for designating waste as incidental to reprocessing if the current challenge becomes an extended legal process, in order to help DOE determine what strategy it needs to move its initiative forward and realize potential savings.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Although DOE initially did not agree with this GAO recommendation, in early 2007 DOE decided to build a pilot-scale facility for the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant to fully test pretreatment technologies before completing the full-scale design of the Waste Plant pretreatment facility. The DOE project manager acknowledged that the GAO recommendation affected the change in the department's approach to building and testing the pretreatment facility. An accomplishment was approved for this recommendation: GAO-07-1672A.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DOE's accelerated cleanup initiative is effective and that cleanup of high-level waste proceeds in a timely and cost-effective manner, the Secretary of the Department of Energy should reassess the potential risks, costs, and benefits of constructing an integrated pilot-scale waste separation facility at the Hanford site to more fully test separation technologies before completing construction of a full-scale facility.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's new project management order 413.3A, issued in July 2006, requires all DOE projects, including its high-level waste projects, include current and rigorous analyses of risks, estimated costs, and the benefits of embarking upon and/or continuing with existing projects to better enable department leaders in making choices between competing priorities. In addition, DOE is developing comprehensive standards for systematically measuring and communicating the readiness of project technologies. These standards will specify consistent metrics for determining technology readiness and establish terminology that will be consistently applied across projects. Finally, the department has taken steps to ensure projects have validated earned value management systems in place to better manage the design and construction of complex nuclear facilities and that the risks and costs associated with fast-track design-build approaches are understood before major project decisions are made. Regarding the fast-track, design-build approach, the Dept. sent a letter on Sept. 8, 2006 accepting this recommendation and stated it would discontinue using a fast-track, design-build approach to completing the Hanford Waste Treatment Plant. An accomplishment was approved: GAO-07-1716A,

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DOE's accelerated cleanup initiative is effective and that cleanup of high-level waste proceeds in a timely and cost-effective manner, the Secretary of the Department of Energy should ensure that DOE's high-level waste projects (1) include a current and rigorous analysis of the risks, costs, and benefits associated with the decisions being implemented, in accordance with OMB guidance; (2) incorporate new technologies consistent with best practices and DOE guidance so that risks and costs are more effectively managed; and (3) are carefully evaluated as to the appropriateness of using a fast-track approach to designing and constructing complex nuclear facilities, and that the potential risks and costs associated with this approach are explicitly identified and considered.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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