Environmental Liabilities: DOE Would Benefit from Incorporating Risk-Informed Decision-Making into Its Cleanup Policy

GAO-19-339 Published: Sep 18, 2019. Publicly Released: Oct 18, 2019.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Energy is responsible for most of the U.S. government’s environmental cleanup costs. Much of DOE’s environmental liability comes from the cleanup of nuclear weapons production.

We and others have long recommended that DOE adopt a risk-informed approach to making cleanup decisions—i.e., an approach that helps agencies prioritize cleanup based on factors like cost and the risks to human health and the environment. We found that DOE has yet to fully implement this, and we developed a framework for such an approach.

We recommended DOE revise its 2017 cleanup policy to establish how it will apply risk-informed decision-making.

Department of Energy’s Sites with Ongoing Cleanup

U.S. map with locations marked in California, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, New York, and South Carolina

U.S. map with locations marked in California, Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Utah, New Mexico, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio, New York, and South Carolina

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) follows certain laws—including the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act—agreements, federal guidance, and court decisions, which establish standards and procedures for DOE's cleanup of hazardous and radioactive waste. However, DOE does not have a framework for implementing these requirements and guidance to make cleanup decisions in a risk-informed manner. For example, DOE's 2017 cleanup policy, which governs the EM cleanup program, does not direct how EM should make environmental cleanup decisions, including how to make risk-informed cleanup decisions. For more than 20 years, several organizations—including the DOE Inspector General and GAO—have recommended that DOE adopt a risk-informed approach. By revising EM's 2017 cleanup policy to establish how EM should apply the essential elements of a risk-informed decision-making framework into its current decision-making requirements and guidance, DOE sites would be better able to implement consistent decision-making processes and ensure that resource allocation is risk informed to the extent practicable.

To assist agencies, such as DOE, in identifying and implementing the essential elements of risk-informed decision-making, GAO synthesized key concepts from relevant literature and input from experts who participated in GAO's meeting convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (National Academies). GAO subsequently developed a framework to be relevant to multiple types of cleanup decisions, from selecting a cleanup approach at a single site to prioritizing cleanup activities across sites. According to literature, entities implementing the framework should ensure that their decision-making process is participatory, logical, transparent, and traceable, and that it uses current scientific knowledge to produce technically credible results. The framework consists of four broad phases: (1) designing the decision-making process, (2) analyzing different options, (3) deciding which option is preferred, and (4) implementing and evaluating the preferred option. Each phase consists of several steps, such as identifying stakeholders, developing an analysis plan, and validating the analysis (see figure).

Figure: Phases and Steps of a Risk-Informed Decision-Making Framework to Address Environmental Cleanup Decisions

Figure: Phases and Steps of a Risk-Informed Decision-Making Framework to Address Environmental Cleanup Decisions

Why GAO Did This Study

As of 2018, the U.S. government faced an estimated $577 billion in environmental liabilities. DOE is responsible for more than 85 percent of these liabilities. DOE is charged with cleaning up contamination from nuclear weapons production and energy research dating back to World War II and the Cold War, which generated large quantities of liquid and solid radioactive waste and contaminated soil and water. Since the mid-1990s, GAO and others have recommended that DOE adopt a risk-informed approach to making cleanup decisions—that is, an approach that helps agencies consider trade-offs among risk, cost, and other factors in the face of uncertainty and diverse stakeholder perspectives.

GAO was asked to review DOE's environmental cleanup decision-making. This report examines (1) the extent to which DOE has a framework for making risk-informed cleanup decisions, and (2) essential elements of a framework for making risk-informed cleanup decisions. GAO conducted a literature review, interviewed DOE officials, and convened an experts' meeting through the National Academies regarding risk-informed decision-making.

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Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations, including that DOE revise EM's 2017 cleanup policy to establish how EM should apply the essential elements of a risk-informed decision-making framework into its current decision-making requirements and guidance. DOE agreed with both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct DOE's Office of Environmental Management to revise EM's 2017 cleanup policy to establish how the EM program and DOE sites should apply the essential elements of a risk-informed decision-making framework into their current decision-making requirements and guidance. (Recommendation 1)
Open – Partially Addressed
DOE concurred with this recommendation and has taken some actions necessary to implement it. Since 2020, EM has issued several planning documents that describe how the EM program and its sites should apply some of the essential elements of a risk-informed decision-making framework. For example, its November 2020 Cleanup Program Management Protocol, which replaced its 2017 cleanup policy, provides a summary of EM's overall approach for prioritizing work. In addition, its September 2022 Program Plan identifies objectives that EM will consider when making cleanup decisions, including risk reduction, cost, worker safety, and workforce diversity, among others. However, these planning documents are missing some essential elements of risk-informed decision-making. For example, the 2022 Program Plan does not identify the decision-making method that EM or its sites will use to make trade-offs among these different objectives. As a result, we will keep this recommendation open and will continue to monitor its implementation.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct DOE's Office of Environmental Management, in the development of a program management plan, to incorporate essential elements of risk-informed decision-making. (Recommendation 2)
Open – Partially Addressed
DOE concurred with this recommendation and has taken some actions necessary to implement it. In September 2022, EM issued a Program Plan that incorporates some essential elements of risk-informed decision-making. For example, the plan identifies objectives that EM will consider when making cleanup decisions, including risk reduction, cost, worker safety, and workforce diversity, among others. However, the plan is missing some essential elements of risk-informed decision-making. For example, it does not identify the decision-making method that EM will use to make trade-offs among these different objectives. As a result, we will keep this recommendation open and will continue to monitor its implementation.

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