Nuclear Waste Cleanup: Actions Needed to Determine Whether DOE's New Contracting Approach is Achieving Desired Results

GAO-22-105417 Published: Sep 28, 2022. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2022.
Jump To:
Fast Facts

The Department of Energy uses contractors to clean up radioactive and other hazardous materials at 15 nuclear weapons production and energy research sites. In 2019, it began a new contracting approach that was expected to help streamline the process and provide other benefits. As of June 2022, it had awarded 6 contracts worth up to a combined $47 billion through this model.

We found weaknesses in the new model, such as authorizations to start work before there is agreement on contract terms. DOE hasn't assessed the new model's effectiveness or whether it should continue to be implemented. Our recommendations address these issues and more.

Department of Energy Active Cleanup Sites with End State Contracting Model Contracts, as of June 2022

A U.S. map showing cleanup site contract details, such as name, status and value.

Skip to Highlights
Highlights

What GAO Found

The Office of Environmental Management (EM), within the Department of Energy (DOE), uses contractors to carry out its mission of cleaning up radioactive and hazardous materials at DOE's 15 active environmental cleanup sites. In 2019, EM began using a new contracting approach, the End State Contracting Model (ESCM), with the goal of more effectively moving cleanup sites toward completion. As of June 2022, EM had awarded six contracts worth up to a combined $47 billion, using the ESCM. EM plans to use the model as its preferred contracting strategy for additional large environmental cleanup contracts going forward. According to EM documentation, the agency sought to incorporate elements of prior successful cleanup projects into the ESCM and to gain key benefits, such as a streamlined procurement process and more realistic pricing. Following the contract award, EM negotiates with the contractor for task orders that define scopes of work and costs for specific cleanup activities (see fig.).

Overview of the End State Contracting Model Process

Overview of the End State Contracting Model Process

EM developed a program plan to guide its implementation of the ESCM and has identified and shared lessons learned. However, EM officials said that ongoing challenges with the ESCM include ensuring that EM has the workforce capacity to effectively implement it, especially during the post-award phase. EM recently analyzed this issue but chose not to pursue its own recommendation to use an independent entity to assess its workforce capacity. Such an assessment would provide the impartial information that EM needs to better align its workforce to successfully administer the ESCM.

GAO's analysis of ESCM contracts found weaknesses with the model's post-award phase, such as the use of undefinitized contract actions, which authorize work to begin before EM and contractors reach final agreement on contract terms. Despite these weaknesses, EM has not systematically assessed its awarded ESCM contracts or developed performance goals or associated measures to assess whether the model is achieving its intended benefits. Implementing a formal, structured process to assess the ESCM's rollout and developing performance measures could help EM to better identify and address weaknesses and ensure that the model is achieving desired results before it awards billions more through the ESCM.

Why GAO Did This Study

The ESCM uses single-award indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity contracts with task orders for defined scopes of work after contract award. This represents a key difference from EM's prior contracting approach, which generally required developing detailed scopes of work for the full length of the contract prior to award.

Senate Report 117-39 accompanying S. 2792, a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022, includes a provision for GAO to review the ESCM. This report (1) describes the current status of the ESCM and EM's reasons for implementing it, (2) examines EM's strategy for ESCM implementation, and (3) examines how EM has administered ESCM contracts. GAO reviewed EM documentation on awarded ESCM contracts and relevant policies and guidance; and interviewed EM officials, industry stakeholders, and relevant contractor personnel.

Skip to Recommendations

Recommendations

GAO recommends that DOE (1) pursue its own recommendation to use an independent entity to assess its workforce capacity; (2) implement a formal, structured process to assess ESCM contracts; and (3) develop measures to assess the model's performance. DOE agreed with GAO's recommendations and stated that it is taking steps to implement them by September 30, 2023.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Assistant Secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management should employ an external entity to perform an independent analysis of its acquisition workforce and support functions to assess its workforce capacity to administer ESCM contracts. (Recommendation 1)
Open
DOE concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, DOE planned to employ an external entity to perform an independent analysis of the Office of Environmental Management's acquisition workforce and support functions to assess its capacity to administer End State Contracting Model contracts. DOE planned to complete this analysis by September 2023.
Department of Energy The Assistant Secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management should develop and implement a structured process to systematically assess the ESCM, including processes for formally documenting and sharing lessons learned and identifying, analyzing, and addressing challenges to ensure that future ESCM contracts are effectively implemented. (Recommendation 2)
Open
DOE concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, DOE planned to build on its existing efforts to identify and share lessons learned to develop and implement a formal, structured assessment of its End State Contracting Model. DOE planned to complete this task by September 2023.
Department of Energy The Assistant Secretary of DOE's Office of Environmental Management should develop and document specific performance goals for the ESCM and measures to track progress toward achieving them. EM should use this performance information to improve the ESCM and better ensure that it is achieving desired results. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOE concurred with this recommendation. As of September 2022, DOE planned to formalize an oversight structure to include performance measures for End State Contracting Model contracts. DOE planned to complete this task by September 30, 2023.

Full Report

GAO Contacts