Nuclear Waste:

DOE's Environmental Management Initiatives Report Is Incomplete

GAO-09-697R: Published: Jun 2, 2009. Publicly Released: Jun 2, 2009.

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Eugene E. Aloise
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The Department of Energy (DOE) spends billions of dollars annually to clean up nuclear waste at sites across the nation that produced nuclear weapons from the 1940s through the end of the Cold War. This waste can threaten public health and the environment. For example, contaminants at DOE's Hanford site in Washington have migrated through the soil into the groundwater, which generally flows toward the Columbia River. The river is a source of irrigation for agriculture and drinking water for downstream communities as well as a major route for migrating salmon. Cleanup projects decontaminate and demolish buildings, remove and dispose of contaminated soil, treat contaminated groundwater, and stabilize and dispose of solid and liquid radioactive wastes, among other things. DOE's Office of Environmental Management currently oversees more than 80 of these cleanup projects, primarily at government-owned, contractor-operated sites throughout the nation. Some of these highly complex projects have completion dates beyond 2050. We have issued numerous reports on DOE's management of its cleanup projects. For example, since 2006 we have issued 12 reports examining DOE's contract and project management. In March 2009, we testified that 9 of the 10 major cleanup projects that we reviewed had experienced cost increases--in total, DOE estimated that it needed an additional $25 billion to $42 billion to complete these cleanup projects. We also reported in September 2008 that these major cleanup projects had experienced delays from 2 to 15 years. These problems were the result of inconsistent application of project management tools and techniques on the part of DOE and its contractors. Furthermore, since 1990, we have designated DOE's contract management as a high-risk area for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement because of the department's record of inadequate management and oversight of its projects. In January 2009, we narrowed the scope of this high-risk area to focus on the two major offices remaining within DOE that continue to experience significant problems--the Office of Environmental Management and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). Together, these two program offices account for about 60 percent of the department's annual budget. Under Section 3130 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 (the Act), DOE was required to report to the congressional defense committees and to the Comptroller General of the United States by September 30, 2008, on the status of the environmental management initiatives that it has undertaken to more rapidly reduce the environmental risks and challenges resulting from the legacy of the Cold War. In particular, the Act required DOE to include five elements in its report, (1) a discussion and assessment of progress made in reducing environmental risks and challenges; (2) an assessment of whether legislative changes or clarifications would improve or accelerate environmental management activities; (3) a listing of major mandatory milestones and commitments DOE faces; (4) an estimate of the life-cycle cost of DOE's current environmental management program; and (5) a description of the process DOE follows for nominating and accepting new work scope into the environmental management program, and schedules to address new work. DOE's Office of Environmental Management issued the required report in January 2009. Section 3130 of the Act also required GAO to review DOE's report and report to the congressional defense committees. As agreed with congressional staffs, this report addresses the extent to which the report that DOE prepared discusses the five elements called for under the Act.

DOE's report only partially addresses the five elements required by the Act. Specifically, only one element--an estimate of the life-cycle cost of DOE's current environmental management program--was fully discussed. Three elements--discussing progress in reducing environmental risks and challenges, listing major mandatory milestones, and describing new work scope processes--were partially discussed. For example, in discussing progress in reducing environmental risks and challenges, DOE did not always clearly connect progress in environmental cleanup with environmental risk reduction. The remaining element--an assessment of whether legislative changes or clarifications would improve or accelerate environmental management activities--was not discussed in the report. DOE officials told us that certain elements were only partially discussed or were not discussed for several reasons, including, in the case of suggested legislative changes, because the department did not want to preempt any nuclear cleanup policy changes the new presidential administration might announce.

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