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Nuclear Waste Cleanup: DOE Needs to Address Weaknesses in Program and Contractor Management at Los Alamos

GAO-23-105665 Published: Jul 19, 2023. Publicly Released: Jul 19, 2023.
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Fast Facts

The Department of Energy's Environmental Management Site Office at Los Alamos is tasked with cleaning up contaminated soil and groundwater, and shipping nuclear and hazardous waste to offsite disposal areas.

The site office recently drafted new program management documents, including an updated cost estimate for the work. But it hasn't taken a comprehensive approach to prioritizing cleanup activities at the site. For example, the site office hasn't documented different options it can take to meet cleanup goals and, therefore, can't be assured it is best prioritizing these activities.

We recommended that DOE address this and other issues.

Building Awaiting Demolition and Cleanup at Los Alamos, NM

A low-slung building sits on a gravel road next to two taller circular structures toped by handrails.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Environmental Management (EM) site office at Los Alamos (EM-LA) has taken steps to establish elements of EM's Program Management Protocol, which contains requirements and expectations for planning, budgeting, executing, and evaluating all work within EM's program. As of March 2023, EM-LA officials said they had submitted program management documents for approval, including a life cycle cost estimate and risk management plan. However, EM-LA has not taken a comprehensive approach to prioritizing cleanup activities in a risk-informed manner. For example, EM-LA has not analyzed different options for achieving site cleanup objectives, as called for in GAO's risk-informed decision-making framework, including optimization analyses that could identify how to most efficiently meet cleanup milestones. Without a comprehensive framework for prioritizing cleanup activities, EM-LA cannot be assured that it is making optimal cleanup decisions.

Weaknesses in EM-LA's oversight of the Los Alamos contractor, which is responsible for the execution of cleanup activities at the site, have limited EM-LA's understanding of cleanup progress and costs. Specifically, the contractor did not meet deadlines to develop a final performance baseline and EM-LA did not use available mechanisms to compel compliance with this requirement. A performance baseline is a measure against which EM-LA can track ongoing cost, scope, and schedule progress. EM-LA officials said that part of the difficulty in developing a baseline was due to the many modifications needed after the contract was awarded. Nonetheless, the delay in finalizing a baseline had consequences, including preventing EM-LA from understanding how much of the work it contracted for in 2018 is complete and at what cost. Without an approved baseline going forward, EM-LA will not have the data it needs to track cleanup progress, which is crucial for effective contract management.

Example of Legacy Waste Cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Example of Legacy Waste Cleanup at Los Alamos National Laboratory

Why GAO Did This Study

The federal government established the Los Alamos National Laboratory in 1943 to conduct nuclear weapons research and development activities to support our nation's defense. Over the years, these activities have necessitated cleanup in three areas: (1) soil and groundwater remediation, (2) legacy waste removal, and (3) deactivation and decommissioning of contaminated facilities.

In 2014, DOE established EM-LA to clean up waste at Los Alamos. To help address cleanup challenges at Los Alamos and other sites, EM issued a Program Management Protocol in 2020.

The Senate committee report that accompanied a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 includes a provision for GAO to, among other things, assess the status of cleanup at Los Alamos. This report examines issues including (1) the steps EM-LA has taken to implement EM's Program Management Protocol and (2) EM-LA's oversight of contractor performance. GAO reviewed EM-LA documents related to the Program Management Protocol and contractor oversight and interviewed EM and EM-LA officials.

Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations, including that EM-LA adopt a comprehensive approach to prioritizing cleanup and ensure that contractors have an approved performance baseline. DOE generally concurred with the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the EM-LA Field Office Manager to work—in conjunction with the New Mexico Environment Department—with a third-party facilitator to improve the relationship and build trust. (Recommendation 1)
Open
As of November 2023, we are following up with the agency and will update the response to this recommendation in the future.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Senior Advisor for the Office of Environmental Management to conduct a root cause analysis and develop and implement a corrective action plan to account for the increases in cost and schedule at EM-LA. (Recommendation 2)
Open
As of November 2023, we are following up with the agency and will update the response to this recommendation in the future.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Senior Advisor for the Office of Environmental Management to develop guidance for its cleanup sites on how to incorporate GAO's essential elements of risk-informed decision-making when applying the prioritization schema referenced in EM's 2020 Program Management Protocol. (Recommendation 3)
Open
As of November 2023, we are following up with the agency and will update the response to this recommendation in the future.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the EM-LA Field Office Manager to formalize and document the decision rules it uses and the analyses it conducts to prioritize cleanup actions, as it waits for EM to issue guidance on how to incorporate risk-informed decision-making when applying EM's prioritization schema. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As of November 2023, we are following up with the agency and will update the response to this recommendation in the future.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Senior Advisor for the Office of Environmental Management to ensure that EM-LA uses available mechanisms to incentivize timely approval of a final contractor performance baseline for the 3-year option period. (Recommendation 5)
Open
As of November 2023, we are following up with the agency and will update the response to this recommendation in the future.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should direct the Senior Advisor for the Office of Environmental Management to track and report on the implementation and effectiveness of the recommendations from the July 2022 integrated project team review. (Recommendation 6)
Open
As of November 2023, we are following up with the agency and will update the response to this recommendation in the future.

Full Report

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Topics

Agency evaluationsCompliance oversightContractor performanceEnvironmental managementEnvironmental restorationGroundwaterGroundwater contaminationHazardous waste site remediationHazardous wastesNuclear waste cleanupRadioactive wastesRemediationSoil contamination