Better Prioritization and Life Cycle Cost Analysis Would Improve Disposition Planning
GAO-15-272: Published: Mar 19, 2015. Publicly Released: Mar 19, 2015.
What GAO Found
The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has identified 83 facilities at six of its eight sites for transfer to the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) for disposition, and the condition of NNSA's facilities awaiting transfer continues to degrade. NNSA plans to transfer all 83 facilities to EM over the next 25 years. Twenty-seven of them are still operational but are expected to become nonoperational in the next 25 years, and 56 are nonoperational now. In 2009, EM agreed to accept 14 NNSA facilities when it had funds available to begin decontamination and decommissioning. Six years later, none of these facilities have been transferred, and EM officials said they may not be able to accept these or other NNSA facilities until at least 2030 due to budget uncertainties and other priorities. Meanwhile, as NNSA maintains contaminated nonoperational facilities, the facilities' condition continues to worsen, resulting in increased costs to maintain them, and NNSA documents show that some facilities will require significant additional maintenance to prevent the spread of contamination. For example, the Alpha-5 facility at NNSA's Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee has degraded to the extent that site officials now detect contaminants, such as mercury, in areas where they were not detected 2 years earlier, and additional funds are needed to repair its failing roof.
EM does not consider the risks of NNSA's nonoperational facilities when prioritizing its cleanup activities. Specifically, when developing its annual facility disposition plans, EM does not consider the human health or environmental risks of NNSA's contaminated nonoperational facilities that meet its transfer requirements but have not yet been transferred. A 2006 DOE Deputy Secretary Program Decision Memorandum stated that EM is to incorporate DOE's contaminated nonoperational facilities into its planning for decontamination and decommissioning, commensurate with the risk such activities pose. EM officials told GAO that they do not include facilities maintained by NNSA in their planning until they have available funding to begin cleanup work. However, without integrating NNSA's inventory of nonoperational facilities into its process for prioritizing facilities for disposition, EM may be prioritizing cleanup for lower-risk facilities under its management ahead of facilities at NNSA that may present a higher risk of spreading contamination.
Why GAO Did This Study
Seventy years of nuclear weapons production and energy research by DOE and its predecessor agencies generated radioactive waste, resulting in thousands of contaminated facilities. Some facilities pose risks to workers near the facilities and to the environment. NNSA, a separately organized agency within DOE, now manages many of these contaminated facilities, and though many are no longer in use, others are still operational. Once NNSA considers these facilities to be nonoperational, they may be eligible for transfer to EM, whose mission includes disposing of contaminated facilities through decontamination and decommissioning. In 2007, EM updated its facility transfer process, but until EM accepts these facilities, NNSA is responsible for their maintenance.
The Senate Armed Services Committee Report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 mandated GAO to assess the inventory of facilities that NNSA plans to transfer to EM for disposition. This report examines (1) how many facilities NNSA has identified for transfer to EM for disposition and their condition and (2) the extent to which EM considers risks of NNSA's contaminated nonoperational facilities and the costs to maintain them when prioritizing its cleanup activities. GAO reviewed documents and interviewed officials from NNSA and EM and visited two NNSA sites that have some of the most contaminated facilities.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends, among other things, that EM integrate into one prioritized list all NNSA facilities that meet EM's transfer requirements. EM neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendation, stating it has formed a working group that may address GAO's findings.
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Recommendations for Executive Action
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In a report to Congress published in December of 2016, DOE analyzed the lifecycle costs of all nonoperational facilities across the DOE complex and incorporated those costs into its prioritization process. According to the report, DOE collected data from across DOE and the National Nuclear Security Administration to obtain updated cost estimates to deactivate and decommission excess facilities and developed a qualitative assessment of the risks they may pose. The report responds to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, Sections 3133 and will be updated biennially.
Recommendation: To better inform its prioritization of facilities for cleanup and identify opportunities for cost savings, and to aid EM in its decision making on which facilities to accept and decontaminate and decommission, the Secretary of Energy direct the Office of Environmental Management (EM) to analyze remaining life cycle costs of all nonoperational NNSA facilities that meet its transfer requirements and incorporate the information into its prioritization process.
Agency Affected: Department of Energy
Status: Closed - Implemented
Comments: In a report to Congress published in December 2016, DOE developed an integrated list of facilities across the DOE complex, estimated lifecycle and deactivation and decommissioning costs, as well as options to accelerate cleanup. The report provided information to Departmental leadership and policymakers to support decisions regarding the path forward to address excess facilities. The report responds to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, Sections 3133, which requires DOE to update the report biennially.
Recommendation: To ensure that EM's annual process to prioritize facilities for decontamination and decommissioning considers all relevant risks from NNSA, and to aid EM in its decision making on which facilities to accept and decontaminate and decommission, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Office of Environmental Management (EM) to integrate its lists of facilities prioritized for disposition with all NNSA facilities that meet EM's transfer requirements, and EM should include this integrated list as part of the Congressional Budget Justification for DOE.
Agency Affected: Department of Energy