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GAO Tells DOE to Improve Cleanup Efforts at Three Former Gaseous Diffusion Plants

Cleaning up the Department of Energy’s (DOE) 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. DOE’s Office of Environmental Management (EM) is responsible for their cleanup and a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says action is needed to improve efforts.

Since 2007, 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 EM must coordinate and make trade-offs in its use of resources among the three GDPs. However, GAO reported on December 17 that EM has managed the cleanup of the three GDPs as three individual sites.

In addition, GAO’s review found that EM is not following relevant leading practices 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.

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, according to GAO, which assessed EM’s cost estimates for the GDPs individually by comparing them with best practices for developing high-quality, reliable cost estimates. Further, GAO found 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.

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, GAO says DOE’s reporting to Congress on the sufficiency of the D&D Fund is based on old financial data, incomplete information, and unclear scope.

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.

GAO has made five recommendations in its report:

  1. 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.)
  2. Track consistent and detailed expenditure information on cleanup activities across the three GDPs.
  3. Ensure the site-specific lifecycle cost estimates for the cleanup of each of the GDPs fully incorporate best practices for cost estimation.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

DOE concurred with recommendations 1, 2, 4, and 5, and partially concurred with the third recommendation. In response to the third recommendation, DOE stated that EM will direct the Portsmouth and Paducah sites to review and incorporate practices from GAO’s Cost Estimating Guide, as appropriate, into the next revisions of each site’s life-cycle cost baselines. DOE also stated that the remaining scope for the Oak Ridge GDP will become part of the performance baseline for the next Oak Ridge contractor. GAO maintains that Oak Ridge should be included in implementing this recommendation.

Read the full report at GAO

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