Fast Facts

Cleaning up 3 plants where uranium was enriched will cost billions of dollars and span decades. These sites—near Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio—are contaminated with radioactive and hazardous materials.

DOE reported spending about $15.5 billion to clean these areas up, as of 2018. The Department of Energy’s current estimate of remaining cleanup costs—more than $28 billion—is not reliable and is likely low. Even using this estimate, costs exceed the amount in DOE’s cleanup fund by at least $25 billion.

We made 5 recommendations, including that DOE take actions that will produce more accurate cost estimates.

The former gaseous diffusion plants

Map showing plants in Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Map showing plants in Paducah, Kentucky; Portsmouth, Ohio; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee

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Highlights

What GAO Found

Since 2007, the Department of Energy (DOE) has stated in reports to Congress that it intends to manage its three former gaseous diffusion plants (GDP) in an integrated manner. Also, a Decontamination and Decommissioning (D&D) Fund was established by law to pay for the cleanup costs of the GDP sites, so that DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) must coordinate and make trade-offs in its use of resources among the three GDPs. However, EM has managed the cleanup of the three GDPs as three individual sites. In addition, EM is not following relevant leading practices GAO reviewed for managing the cleanup as a program (having a program management plan; a reliable integrated master schedule; and a reliable, integrated, comprehensive life-cycle cost estimate. By managing the three GDPs as an integrated program and following these program management leading practices, EM would have more reasonable assurance that it is taking every opportunity to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of its management activities.

EM has reported spending a total of about $15.5 billion on GDP cleanup as of fiscal year 2018. However, EM's cost estimates for completing cleanup at the three sites are not reliable. GAO assessed EM's cost estimates for the GDPs individually by comparing them with best practices for developing high-quality, reliable cost estimates. EM's cost estimates for completing cleanup of the GDPs do not fully or substantially meet all of the characteristics of a reliable cost estimate Until EM ensures that its site-specific cost estimates fully incorporate best practices for cost estimation, EM, DOE, regulators, and Congress will not have the information needed to understand the level of resources required to achieve cleanup of the three GDPs.

Under EM's current cost estimates, remaining GDP cleanup costs exceed the balance of the D&D Fund by at least $25 billion and EM faces challenges that could affect cleanup progress and the sufficiency of the fund. For example, DOE's reporting to Congress on the sufficiency of the D&D Fund is based on old financial data, incomplete information, and unclear scope. These limitations reduce the quality of the information Congress receives for making decisions about the sufficiency of the fund and allocating resources to the fund. For example, DOE reported to Congress on the status of the D&D fund and GDP cleanup in May 2019. The report was based on financial data as of September 2016 and on cost estimates prepared in 2013 for one GDP and in 2014 for the other two. Given that DOE estimates the fund will be exhausted in 2020, there is urgency for DOE to communicate current information on the fund on a timely basis to Congress. By regularly reporting on the status of the D&D Fund and cleanup efforts at the three GDPs with current information that contains details on challenges in reaching agreement with regulators and a clear scope of work, DOE will be able to provide better information for congressional decision-making on the sufficiency of the fund.

Why GAO Did This Study

Cleaning up DOE's former uranium enrichment sites will cost billions of dollars and span decades. These sites, near Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Paducah, Kentucky; and Portsmouth, Ohio, are contaminated with radioactive and hazardous materials. EM is responsible for their cleanup.

This report examines (1) the extent to which EM has managed cleanup of the GDPs compared with relevant program management leading practices and the status of the cleanup effort; (2) what EM has spent on cleanup at the GDPs, and the extent to which EM's cost estimates for completing GDP cleanup are reliable; and (3) the extent to which the D&D Fund is sufficient to cover EM's estimated cleanup costs of the GDPs and challenges, if any, that could affect the sufficiency of the fund. GAO reviewed relevant legislation and DOE reports to Congress on GDP cleanup; compared program management to relevant leading practices; assessed EM expenditure and cost estimation documents; and interviewed EM and state regulatory officials at the three GDPs.

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Recommendations

GAO is making five recommendations, including that DOE (1) manage the cleanup of the three GDPs as an integrated program and follow program management leading practices, (2) ensure cost estimates fully incorporate cost estimating best practices, and (3) report regularly on the status of the D&D Fund and cleanup efforts at the three GDPs. DOE agreed with four of them and partially agreed with one. GAO believes all of the recommendations should be implemented at all three sites.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to take steps to manage the three GDPs as an integrated program and follow relevant program management leading practices (developing a GDP-wide program management plan; an integrated master schedule; and a reliable, integrated, comprehensive life-cycle cost estimate.) (Recommendation 1)
Open
In March 2021, DOE officials told us that its Office of Environmental Management (EM) Portsmouth/Paducah Project Office (PPPO) is in the process of developing a program management master plan, to include site-integrated master schedules and life-cycle cost estimates, for the Portsmouth and Paducah gaseous diffusion plants (GDPs). Officials stated that the plan will incorporate program management leading practices as appropriate. According to DOE officials, EM will direct PPPO to use actual collected cost and schedule information for integration of relevant lessons learned from the East Tennessee Technology Park cleanup into integrated program plans, schedules, and estimates. DOE officials estimated that this effort would be completed by December 31, 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to track consistent and detailed expenditure information on cleanup activities across the three GDPs. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up on this recommendation and will update it when we receive information.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to ensure the site-specific life-cycle cost estimates for the cleanup of each of the GDPs fully incorporate best practices for cost estimation. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In March 2021, DOE officials told us that its Office of Environmental Management (EM) has directed the Portsmouth and Paducah GDP sites to review and incorporate the practices from GAO's Cost Estimating Guide (GAO-20-195G), as appropriate, into the next revision of each site's life-cycle cost baselines. According to DOE officials, Oak Ridge is in the process of procuring a follow-on cleanup contract, which includes the scope to complete the cleanup of the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP). According to DOE officials, given that the cleanup of the ETTP GDP is nearly complete, the baseline for the entire ETTP GDP will not be included in the life cycle cost estimate review. Officials stated the remaining scope of work for the ETTP GDP will, however, become part of the performance baseline for the next Oak Ridge cleanup contractor. DOE officials estimated that this effort would be completed by December 31, 2021.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should direct the Assistant Secretary of the Office of Environmental Management to work—in conjunction with EPA and Kentucky and Tennessee state regulators—with an independent, third-party facilitator to help resolve disagreements over cleanup priorities, cleanup remedies, and cost estimation assumptions. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up on this recommendation and will update it when we receive information.
Office of the Secretary The Secretary of Energy should regularly report on the status of the D&D Fund and cleanup efforts at the three GDPs with current information that contains details on challenges in reaching agreement with regulators and a clear scope of work. (Recommendation 5)
Open
As of July 2021, we are following up on this recommendation and will update it when we receive information.

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