Fast Facts

Decades of nuclear energy research at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory produced two forms of high-level radioactive waste. DOE must treat all 2 million gallons of this waste and prepare it for removal from Idaho by 2035.

DOE finished an on-site treatment facility for one form of this waste in 2012, but initial testing revealed problems and a need for more work. Total project spending approached $1 billion in February. We found DOE could improve how it manages the work. DOE may also need to retrofit the facility to treat the other form of waste.

We made 5 recommendations, including ways to better manage DOE’s facility work.

The Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory

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A large white building with a bright blue sky in the background

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) has not fully followed selected project management best practices in managing the reengineering of the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU), shown in the figure, to treat 900,000 gallons of liquid sodium-bearing waste (SBW) that must be solidified for disposal. EM's cost and schedule estimates for IWTU reengineering did not fully meet selected best practices for cost (i.e., did not account for all costs) and schedule estimates (e.g., did not have a valid critical path). For example, EM did not follow best practices for a comprehensive cost estimate because EM did not include both government and contractor costs over the entire project. As of February 2019, EM has experienced approximately $64 million in added costs and a more than 1-year delay in IWTU reengineering. Without fully following best practices for cost and schedule estimates, EM is at risk of future cost overruns and delays in meeting its target disposal milestones.

The Department of Energy's Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at Idaho National Laboratory

The Department of Energy's Integrated Waste Treatment Unit at Idaho National Laboratory

Based on GAO's review of EM documents, EM faces challenges with its plans for SBW disposal at its preferred disposal site, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground repository for waste contaminated by nuclear elements, near Carlsbad, New Mexico. These challenges include a statutory prohibition on the disposal of high-level waste (HLW) at WIPP. Further, EM does not have a strategy or timeline to address these challenges or to identify an alternative disposal pathway. Without such a strategy or timeline, EM risks not meeting its commitments with Idaho to prepare the SBW for removal from the state by 2035.

EM faces challenges implementing its selected technology to further treat 1.2 million gallons of granular calcine waste and selecting a potential waste disposal pathway. For example, DOE has identified challenges with retrofitting the IWTU for calcine waste treatment. As a result, EM is deferring further development of its plans to treat the calcine waste. EM officials said that the agency is making progress toward calcine waste disposal by testing options for removing the waste from its storage bins, a precursor to treating or packaging the waste for disposal. However, EM does not have a strategy or timeline for determining its next steps for the treatment and disposal of calcine waste. Such a strategy could help EM in seeking alternatives to its selected treatment technology and provide assurance that it will meet its commitments with Idaho for removing calcine waste from the state by the end of 2035.

Why GAO Did This Study

Decades of defense activities at DOE's Idaho National Laboratory produced two forms of waste that EM has managed as HLW: liquid SBW and granular calcine waste. Under an agreement with the state, DOE must treat the waste to prepare it for removal from Idaho by 2035. Construction on the IWTU, EM's facility to treat such waste, was completed in 2012, but initial testing of the SBW treatment process revealed design problems. EM has since been working to reengineer the IWTU. Total project construction and reengineering expenditures have reached nearly $1 billion as of February 2019.

GAO was asked to review EM's efforts to treat and dispose of the SBW and calcine waste. This report examines (1) the extent to which EM's management of the IWTU follows selected project management best practices; (2) challenges EM faces in disposing of the SBW; and (3) challenges EM faces in treating and disposing of the calcine waste.

GAO reviewed agency documents and IWTU project data from March 2017 through February 2018, analyzed EM project management efforts against selected project management best practices for cost and schedule, and interviewed DOE officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making five recommendations, including that DOE develop a strategy for the disposal of the waste. DOE generally agreed with all of these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of EM to develop cost estimates for the IWTU reengineering project and the SBW treatment operations that meet best practices for being comprehensive (e.g., account for all costs). (Recommendation 1)
Open
In an update provided in April 2020, DOE said that it had taken steps to ensure the cost estimates will meet best practices for being comprehensive (e.g., account for all costs) as part of contract negotiations for the cleanup project. As of August 2021, GAO has requested additional information from DOE and will update the status of this recommendation after it has received and analyzed this information.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of EM to develop schedule estimates for the IWTU reengineering project and the SBW treatment operations that meet best practices for being well-constructed. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In an update provided by DOE in April 2020, DOE said that in negotiating the Idaho Cleanup Project contract it had taken steps to ensure the schedule estimates for the IWTU reengineering project and the SBW treatment operations will meet best practices for being well constructed. Further, DOE stated that the remaining baseline scope and schedule estimate received an external review by its contractor's parent corporation and DOE's Office of Environmental Management to ensure that the schedule meets best practices for being well-constructed. As of August 2021, GAO has requested additional information from DOE and will update the status of this recommendation after it has received and analyzed this information.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of EM to follow best practices for ensuring the reliability for the IWTU reengineering project's earned value management system. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In an update provided by DOE in April 2020, DOE said that cost and performance data for the IWTU is being tracked against the cost and schedule baselines incorporated in the core contract for the Idaho Cleanup Project, and that the data meets best practices for reliability. As of August 2021, GAO has requested additional information from DOE and will update the status of this recommendation after it has received and analyzed this information.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of EM to develop a strategy, including a timeline, for implementing the actions required to achieve its preferred disposal pathway, or an alternative, for the SBW. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In an update provided by DOE in July 2021, DOE said that the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit is not yet operational for the the treatment of the SBW. According to DOE, EM will assess the range of potential strategies and pathways for disposal of the SBW once the waste is treated. Once this effort is completed, GAO will review EM's strategy and timeline for achieving its preferred disposal pathway, or an alternative, and update the status of this recommendation accordingly.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of EM to develop a strategy, including a timeline, to identify and develop a treatment approach for the disposal of the calcine waste to ensure that EM meets the milestone for completing the treatment of this waste by the target date of December 31, 2035. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In an update provided by DOE in July 2021, DOE said that an updated draft Calcine Analysis of Alternatives was completed in January 2021. DOE's Idaho Operations Office is in the process of updating the draft, with revisions anticipated in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2021. DOE also said that a path for the calcine waste would be developed in late 2021. GAO will request additional information from DOE on this analysis once completed and will update the status of this recommendation after it has received and analyzed this information.

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