Department of Energy:

Problems and Progress in Managing Plutonium

RCED-98-68: Published: Apr 17, 1998. Publicly Released: May 19, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the status of the Department of Energy's (DOE) efforts to stabilize, package and store its plutonium, focusing on: (1) plutonium that is not in the form of nuclear weapons components, or pits; and (2) plutonium in pits.

GAO noted that: (1) although DOE has made some progress in stabilizing its plutonium, it is unlikely to meet its May 2002 target date to have its plutonium that is not in its pits stabilized, packaged, and stored; (2) DOE sites with the majority of this plutonium have experienced many delays and anticipate more in meeting their implementation plan milestones; (3) various problems contribute to these delays, including: (a) changes from the technologies originally chosen to stabilize plutonium residues at Rocky Flats to meet a security requirement; (b) a suspension of plutonium stabilization operations because of safety infractions at Hanford; (c) competing priorities for funding, staff, and equipment at Los Alamos; and (d) delays in obtaining a system for stabilizing and packaging plutonium at three sites; (4) given the inherent dangers of plutonium, such delays result in continuing the existing level of risk to workers' health and safety by delaying the risk reduction that is achieved by stabilization and packaging activities; (5) moreover, because DOE has not yet finalized the criteria the plutonium must meet to be acceptable for the disposition technologies, it is unclear if current activities to stabilize, package, and store the plutonium will be compatible with the means of converting it for disposal; (6) in addition to its delays in stabilizing and packaging its plutonium that is not in pits, DOE is currently storing approximately 10,000 pits in containers that both DOE and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board believe are not suitable for extended storage, thus risking workers' exposure to plutonium; (7) DOE is preparing a plan, which it intends to issue in April 1998, to develop new containers and repackage the remaining 95 percent of the pits; (8) without conducting an analysis of the costs or benefits of the laboratories' recommendation for increased monitoring, DOE decided not to change its existing monitoring program, which formally examines about 30 pits per year; and (9) DOE hopes that it can repackage the pits before enhanced monitoring is necessary.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Energy is addressing the subject recommendation by ongoing development of a complex-wide Integrated Pit Management Program Plan. The development of the plan is necessary to provide DOE a corporate vision for management of strategic reserve and surplus pits prior to disposition activities at the proposed Pit Disassembly and Conversion Facility at the Savannah River Site. The draft plan describes scope, major ongoing pit management activities, and roles and responsibilities of the participating DOE and contractor organizations. The draft plan is scheduled to go out for review and comment on October 31, 2000, and the milestone for finalization is January 2001, with yearly updates. An integral part of the plan addresses the planned repackaging of the pits stored at the Pantex Plant into the ALR8 Sealed Insert storage containers. Repackaging capacity is 200 pits per month, and there are ongoing funding discussions for this activity.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should ensure the timely and cost-effective resolution of the wide range of issues surrounding pit storage, including ensuring that the plan being developed by DOE addresses such key items as a clear definition of responsibility and accountability for program activities; realistic cost estimates and a program budget; and detailed schedules for designing and developing replacement containers and repackaging the pits, as well as a means to track progress against these schedules.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2000, DOE issued an implementation plan to address the issues raised by GAO and in a similar recommendation issued by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (DNFSB). DOE agreed to take actions to achieve an estimated repackaging rate of 200 pits per month. In addition, DOE modified its container surveillance plan to provide more formalized information regarding the statistical basis for the plan, an outline of the quantitative and qualitative analyses that would be performed, and an explanation of how the results of these analyses will be used to predict future container performance. DOE hoped that this surveillance plan would provide the appropriate level of assurance that container defects would be identified prior to any significant compromise to the pit storage environment. While DOE had difficulties implementing its surveillance program and performing the required number of evaluations of pit containers in fiscal year 2000, additional evaluations were performed in fiscal year 2001 by a new contractor at the Pantex Plant--the DOE facility storing plutonium pits. DOE reiterated its commitment to repackage and perform surveillance on pit containers as agreed to in its implementation plan. In May 2002, the DNFSB agreed that pits were being placed in adequate containers at a satisfactory rate. While it emphasized that only inspection over time will tell how long such storage would remain adequate, the DNFSB stated that it was encouraged by recent progress DOE had made implementing its recommendation.

    Recommendation: Given the length of time the pits will be stored in unsuitable containers, the Secretary of Energy, in cooperation with DOE laboratories and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, should conduct a thorough safety analysis of the recommended enhanced pit monitoring program as well as other possible monitoring options to identify the most appropriate and cost-effective approach to ensure the specified safety concerns about the prolonged storage of pits in the unsuitable containers are resolved.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy


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