Department of Energy: Environmental Liability Continues to Grow, but Opportunities May Exist to Reduce Costs and Risks

GAO-21-585R Published: Jun 08, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 08, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Energy has the difficult task of cleaning up hazardous and radioactive waste from energy research and nuclear weapons production dating to World War II. This report describes the estimated cost of this future cleanup—DOE's environmental liability—and related issues.

  • The estimated future cost was $512 billion in FY 2020
  • Most of the liabilities ($406 billion of the total) are for cleanup activities managed by DOE's Office of Environmental Management
  • The growth of the Office's environmental liability has outpaced its cleanup spending

In 2017, we added the federal government's environmental liabilities to our High Risk List.

Office of Environmental Management's Estimated Environmental Liability, Fiscal Years 2011-2020

Bar graph showing increasing liabilities, ending with $406 billion in liability in FY2020

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What GAO Found

The Department of Energy's (DOE) environmental liability is large and growing. In managing cleanup responsibilities related to this liability, DOE faces challenges in contract and project management, and has opportunities to reduce costs and risks. 

Why GAO Did This Study

DOE is tasked with cleaning up hazardous and radioactive waste created by nuclear weapons research and production sites across the country dating back to World War II and the Cold War. DOE's cleanup mission includes addressing contaminated soil and groundwater, deactivating and decommissioning contaminated facilities, and building facilities to treat millions of gallons of radioactive waste. DOE's estimate of the probable costs for this future cleanup is known as its environmental and disposal liability (or environmental liability).

This report describes the status of DOE's environmental liability, and challenges and opportunities GAO has identified that DOE faces in managing its cleanup responsibilities. GAO reviewed its prior reports and synthesized key findings and recommendations related to DOE's environmental liability.

For more information, contact Nathan Anderson at (202) 512-3841 or

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