Fast Facts

The Cold War arms race created a buildup of nuclear waste in the United States that needs to be cleaned up. This almost-30-year-old effort will take another 70 years and cost about $500 billion more.

Yet the Department of Energy program responsible for this effort categorizes most of its work in a way that does not adequately involve independent experts and DOE senior leadership. It also has not followed leading practices for program and project management that could help keep the cleanup on schedule and control costs.

We made 7 recommendations to address the management challenges we found.

Construction of tanks to store nuclear waste at the Hanford site in the state of Washington

This is a photo of 8 tanks being constructed to store nuclear waste on land in the state of Washington.

This is a photo of 8 tanks being constructed to store nuclear waste on land in the state of Washington.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) manages most of its cleanup of nuclear waste (77 percent of its fiscal year 2019 budget) under a category that EM refers to as operations activities, using less stringent requirements than a category of work, known as capital asset projects. (See figure) Capital asset projects—which involve the acquisition of land and other assets, including through environmental remediation—must undergo a series of reviews by independent experts and DOE's senior leadership. In contrast, operations activities are not reviewed outside of EM. EM's policy defines operations activities as reoccurring facility or environmental operations, as well as activities that are project-like, with defined start and end dates. EM cleanup site managers have discretion on how to classify cleanup work because DOE and EM have not established classification requirements. Since 2015, experts in DOE's Office of Project Management have raised concerns that some operations activities should be classified as capital asset projects, and that managing them under less stringent requirements poses cost and schedule risks. For example, the experts stated the cleanup of tanks of radioactive liquid waste should be designated as capital asset projects. However, these experts also stated that EM did not respond to their concerns, even though the office has department-wide responsibilities for overseeing project management. Until EM works with DOE's Office of Project Management to establish requirements for classifying cleanup work, the department may incur more cost and schedule risks than it should.

Examples of Requirements for Operations Activities and Capital Asset Projects

Examples of Requirements for Operations Activities and Capital Asset Projects

EM's cleanup policy does not follow any of 9 selected program management leading practices or 9 of 12 selected project management leading practices. For example, EM's 2017 cleanup policy does not follow the program management leading practice of conducting risk management throughout the life of a program or the project management leading practice of requiring independent reviews of operations activities. These leading practices help ensure that a program optimizes scope, cost, and schedule performance and that it achieves its goals and intended benefits. Until EM revises its cleanup policy to follow leading practices, EM's operations activities are at risk of uncontrolled changes to scope, exceeding initial budget and schedule, and failing to meet their original goals.

Why GAO Did This Study

EM's mission is to complete the cleanup of nuclear waste at 16 DOE sites and to work to reduce risks and costs within its established regulatory framework. In December 2018, DOE reported that it faced an estimated $494 billion in future environmental cleanup costs—a liability that roughly tripled during the previous 20 years.

GAO was asked to examine EM's operations activities. This report examines, among other objectives, (1) how EM manages its cleanup work and (2) the extent to which EM's cleanup policy follows selected leading practices for program and project management.

To do this work, GAO reviewed agency documents and interviewed DOE project management experts and EM officials. GAO compared EM's policy with selected leading practices endorsed by the Project Management Institute for program and project management related to scope, cost, schedule, and independent review.

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Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that EM (1) establish cleanup work classification requirements and (2) revise its cleanup policy to follow program and project management leading practices. DOE generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Project Management and the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to work together to establish requirements for classifying cleanup work as capital asset projects or operations activities. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In Section 3123 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, Congress directed DOE to implement this recommendation, specifically that the Assistant Secretary of EM consult with DOE to establish requirements for the classification of defense environmental cleanup projects as capital asset projects or operations activities. Congress directed EM to report on the status of these actions by March 1, 2021. Moreover, on November 6, 2020, EM issued a Program Management Protocol, which replaces EM's former cleanup policy and, among other things, provides a general breakdown of EM's cleanup work into "project activities" or "operations activities." We will continue to monitor the status of this recommendation as EM implements this effort.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Director of the Office of Project Management and the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to work together to asses EM's ongoing operations activities to determine if they should be reclassified as capital asset projects based on the newly established requirements. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In Section 3123 of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, Congress directed DOE to implement this recommendation, specifically that the Assistant Secretary of EM assess whether any ongoing defense environmental cleanup projects should be reclassified based on newly established classification requirements. Congress directed EM to report on the status of these actions by March 1, 2021. Moreover, on November 6, 2020, EM issued a Program Management Protocol, which replaces EM's former cleanup policy and, among other things, provides a general breakdown of EM's cleanup work into "project activities" or "operations activities." We will continue to monitor the status of this recommendation as EM implements this effort.
Department of Energy
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to review and revise EM's 2017 cleanup policy to include program management leading practices related to scope, cost, schedule performance, and independent reviews. (Recommendation 3)
Open
EM has made progress on this recommendation. On November 6, 2020, EM issued a Program Management Protocol to replace EM's former cleanup policy. The protocol discusses some of the key elements of leading practices for program management that we identified in our 2019 report. For example, in 2019 we found that EM's cleanup policy did not require an overarching strategic plan that encompasses the work at all sites, which is a leading practice. According to EM's new protocol, EM will now develop an EM Strategic Vision presenting the goals for EM as a whole over the next ten years and has released its first Strategic Vision for 2020-2030. EM's protocol also states that it will develop an associated EM Program Plan to serve as a roadmap for planning the work at each field site to achieve the Strategic Vision. Both documents are to be updated every two years. We will continue to monitor EM's implementation of this recommendation.
Department of Energy
Priority Rec.
Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies.
The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to review and revise EM's 2017 cleanup policy to include project management leading practices related to scope, cost, schedule performance, and independent reviews. (Recommendation 4)
Open
EM has made some progress on this recommendation. On November 6, 2020, EM issued a Program Management Protocol to replace EM's former cleanup policy. The protocol discusses some of the key elements of leading practices for project management that we identified in our 2019 report. For example, in 2019 we found that EM's cleanup policy did not discuss steps EM might take--such as conducting root cause analyses and developing corrective action plans--to identify and address the underlying causes of performance problems, which is a leading practice. EM's new protocol discusses instances where EM may conduct root causes analyses and develop corrective active plans for contracts and projects, but it is not clear whether this requirement also applies to operations activities, which represent most of its cleanup work. We will continue to monitor EM's implementation of this recommendation.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to update its cleanup policy to require that earned value management (EVM) systems be maintained and used in a way that follows EVM best practices. (Recommendation 5)
Open
On November 6, 2020, EM issued a Program Management Protocol, which replaces EM's former cleanup policy and, among other things, discusses requirements for the use and certification of contractors' EVM systems. We will continue to monitor EM's implementation of this recommendation.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to develop a policy to ensure that work is categorized as level of effort only in appropriate, specified circumstances, such as when work is not measurable or when measurement is impractical. (Recommendation 6)
Open
On November 6, 2020, EM issued a Program Management Protocol, which replaces EM's former cleanup policy and, among other things, provides a general breakdown of EM's cleanup work into "project activities" or "operations activities." The protocol further breaks down operations activities into "mission activities"--cleanup activities with discrete end points, such as decontamination, decommissioning, and legacy waste processing--and "mission support activities"--routine or recurring activities to support site management, such as providing security. The protocol discusses level of effort work in the context of contract management, and states that work activities at the category of level of effort work will be minimized to the greatest extent possible, and includes non-measurable elements of mission support activities, facility maintenance to maintain safe conditions, and storage activities. We will continue to monitor EM's implementation of this recommendation.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to integrate EVM data into EM's performance metrics for operations activities. (Recommendation 7)
Open
On November 6, 2020, EM issued a Program Management Protocol, which replaces EM's former cleanup policy and, among other things, discusses EM's plan to assess contractor performance on a monthly basis using contractor EVM data. We will continue to monitor EM's implementation of this recommendation.

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