Nuclear Waste:

DOE Should Take Actions to Improve Oversight of Cleanup Milestones

GAO-19-207: Published: Feb 14, 2019. Publicly Released: Feb 14, 2019.

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David C. Trimble
(202) 512-3841
TrimbleD@gao.gov

 

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The Department of Energy is tasked with cleaning up waste from Cold War nuclear weapons production, much of which is hazardous or radioactive. DOE spends about $6 billion a year on this cleanup, and faces about $500 billion in future liabilities.

Agreements between DOE and its regulators set requirements and milestones (deadlines) for the work at each cleanup site.

We found that DOE didn't accurately track or report whether milestones were met, missed, or postponed. We also found that sites continually renegotiate milestones they are at risk of missing.

We made 4 recommendations to address these and other issues we found.

Department of Energy Sites Where Cleanup Remains

This is a map of the United States marking the 16 sites.

This is a map of the United States marking the 16 sites.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

David C. Trimble
(202) 512-3841
TrimbleD@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The cleanup process at the 16 sites overseen by the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) is governed by 72 agreements and hundreds of milestones specifying actions EM is to take as it carries out its cleanup work. However, EM headquarters and site officials do not consistently track data on the milestones. EM headquarters and site officials provided GAO with different totals on the number of milestones in place at the four sites GAO selected for review. These discrepancies result from how headquarters and selected sites define and track milestones. First, not all sites make the same distinction between major (i.e., related to on-the-ground cleanup) and non-major milestones and, as a result, are not consistently reporting the same milestones to EM headquarters. Second, sites do not consistently provide EM headquarters with the most up-to-date information on the status of milestones at each site. These inconsistencies limit EM's ability to use milestones to manage the cleanup mission and monitor its progress.

EM does not accurately track met, missed, or postponed cleanup-related milestones at the four selected sites, and EM's milestone reporting to Congress is incomplete. EM sites renegotiate milestone dates before they are missed, and EM does not track the history of these changes. This is because once milestones change, sites are not required to maintain or track the original milestone dates. GAO has previously found that without a documented and consistently-applied schedule change control process, program staff may continually revise the schedule to match performance, hindering management's insight into the true performance of the project. Further, since 2011, EM has not consistently reported to Congress on the status of the milestones each year, as required, and the information it has reported is incomplete. EM reports the most recently renegotiated milestone dates with no indication of whether or how often those milestones have been missed or postponed. Since neither EM headquarters nor the sites track renegotiated milestones and their baseline dates at the sites, milestones do not provide a reliable measure of program performance.

EM officials at headquarters and selected sites have not conducted root cause analyses on missed or postponed milestones; thus, such analyses are not part of milestone negotiations. Specifically, EM has not done a complex-wide analysis of the reasons for missed or postponed milestones. Similarly, officials GAO interviewed at the four selected sites said that they were not aware of any site-wide review of why milestones were missed or postponed. Best practices for project and program management outlined in GAO's Cost Estimating and Assessment Guide note the importance of identifying root causes of problems that lead to schedule delays. Additionally, in a 2015 directive, DOE emphasized the importance of conducting such analysis. Analyzing the root causes of missed or postponed milestones would better position EM to address systemic problems and consider those problems when renegotiating milestones with regulators. Without such analysis, EM and its cleanup regulators lack information to set more realistic and achievable milestones and, as a result, future milestones are likely to continue to be pushed back, further delaying the cleanup work. As GAO has reported previously, these delays lead to increases in the overall cost of the cleanup.

Why GAO Did This Study

EM manages DOE's radioactive and hazardous waste cleanup program using compliance agreements negotiated between DOE and other federal and state agencies. Within the agreements, milestones outline cleanup work to be accomplished by specific deadlines. EM's cleanup program faces nearly $500 billion in future environmental liability, which has grown substantially.

GAO was asked to review DOE's cleanup agreements. This report examines the extent to which EM (1) tracks the milestones in cleanup agreements for EM's cleanup sites; (2) has met, missed, or postponed cleanup-related milestones at selected sites and how EM reports information; and (3) has analyzed why milestones are missed or postponed and how EM considers those reasons when renegotiating milestones.

GAO reviewed agreements and milestones at EM's 16 cleanup sites and compared information tracked by EM headquarters and these sites; interviewed officials from four selected sites (chosen for variation in location and scope of cleanup, among other factors); and reviewed EM guidance related to milestone negotiations.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations, including that EM establish a standard definition of milestones across the cleanup sites, track and report original and renegotiated milestone dates, and identify the root causes of why milestones are missed or postponed. In commenting on a draft of this report, DOE agreed with three of the recommendations and partially agreed with a fourth.

For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or TrimbleD@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation. According to DOE, by September 30, 2019, the Office of Environmental Management (EM) plans to develop a policy that will include standard definitions and explicit implementing instructions to strengthen consistency and completeness in corporate-level tracking of regulatory compliance milestones.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management should update EM's policies and procedures to establish a standard definition of milestones and specify requirements for both including and updating information on milestones across the complex. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation and stated that EM is evaluating options and pursuing a method to more effectively reflect milestone changes and the significance of those changes to milestone completion dates. EM plans to complete the development of the policy to enhance the data collection system by September 30, 2019.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management should track original milestone dates as well as changes to its cleanup milestones. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation and stated that it is committed to complying with the NDAA requirements. According to DOE, EM is evaluating options to address this recommendation to include original milestone dates and, by December 15, 2019, will make a decision on a mechanism for tracking milestone changes.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management should comply with the requirements in the National Defense Authorization Act by reporting annually to Congress on the status of its cleanup milestones and including a complete list of cleanup milestones for all sites required by the act. The annual reports should also include, for each milestone, the original date along with the currently negotiated date. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: DOE agreed with the recommendation and stated that EM is evaluating options to implement it. Specifically, DOE said that a method of tracking the root cause of missed or postponed milestones will be established in policy and would be implemented for future milestones by September 30, 2019. Further, by December 15, 2019, EM plans to identify options to review missed milestones that occurred in the past.

    Recommendation: The Assistant Secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management should conduct root cause analyses of missed or postponed milestones. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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