Nuclear Waste:

Better Performance Reporting Needed to Assess DOE's Ability to Achieve the Goals of the Accelerated Cleanup Program

GAO-05-764: Published: Jul 29, 2005. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2005.

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In February 2002, following years of rising costs to its nuclear waste cleanup program, the Department of Energy (DOE) announced a new initiative--the accelerated cleanup plan--and committed to reduce costs of cleanup by $50 billion, shorten the cleanup schedule by 35 years, and reduce risks to human health and the environment. GAO reviewed (1) the progress DOE has made under its accelerated cleanup plan, (2) the likelihood DOE will achieve its estimated $50 billion in cost reductions, and (3) whether DOE's performance reporting allows for a full understanding of progress toward achieving the accelerated plan goals.

Since implementing its accelerated cleanup plan, DOE's progress in reducing environmental risks has been mixed. By March 2005, DOE was on track or ahead of schedule for many of the 16 cleanup activities it measures, including packaging nuclear materials for disposition, disposing of low-level waste, and removing buildings. In contrast, DOE was behind its accelerated schedule for 3 challenging and costly activities--disposing of transuranic and radioactive tank wastes and closing tanks that had contained radioactive wastes. These three cleanup activities had technical problems, such as developing waste separation technology, or regulatory issues, such as determining when a storage tank is clean enough to close. Furthermore, DOE has had problems with other treatment and disposal activities not reflected in its performance measures, such as delays in shipping plutonium from sites, resulting in additional costs to secure and store the material. DOE is not likely to achieve the full $50 billion estimated cost reduction, a key goal of the accelerated cleanup plan. First, DOE's method of calculating its $50 billion cost reduction likely overstated the potential reductions. Second, DOE based estimated cost reductions on assumed improvements that are highly uncertain, such as technology development, revised contracting strategies, and regulatory requirements. Third, while DOE expected cost reductions to come from most of its sites, key sites are already experiencing delays and, by the end of fiscal year 2004, had incurred cost increases. Recognizing these problems, DOE no longer cites its $50 billion estimate but still expects to achieve some cost reductions. DOE performance reporting does not allow for an adequate understanding of its progress toward achieving overall cleanup goals because of limitations in how DOE uses its performance measures. First, in its performance reporting, DOE does not clearly link accomplishments with the incurred costs. Second, DOE does not clearly highlight critical activities, such as preparing radioactive tank waste for disposal, that have the greatest impact on progress toward meeting overarching cleanup goals.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help DOE and the Congress monitor progress toward meeting DOE's accelerated cleanup plan cost and schedule goals, the Secretary of Energy should improve DOE's performance reporting so that there is a clearer, discernable relationship at the activity level between cleanup accomplishments and the costs incurred in doing the work.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's 60-day letter to Congress (Feb. 06) noted that beginning in March 2006 DOE will provide a new semiannual Report to Congress to track progress on accelerated cleanup milestones, including annual budget estimates and life-cycle costs. The first report was submitted to Congress in June 2006, with a followup in October 2006. This report, titled "Report to Congress: Milestone Report: Complex-Wide and Site-Specific Progress Toward Accelerated Cleanup Milestones" provides a status, by each site and by each of 16 performance measures, of the progress DOE has made in meeting milestones. The report uses a stoplight method (red-yellow-green) to provide the reader an indication of actual performance against planned performance. The DOE contact noted that the next report to Congress is due March 2007.

    Recommendation: To help DOE and the Congress monitor progress toward meeting DOE's accelerated cleanup plan cost and schedule goals, the Secretary of Energy should identify in DOE's performance reporting to the Congress and others those performance measures that are the most critical to achieving cost and schedule goals, and summarize the progress on these measures and the potential impact of any problems that could affect achieving accelerated cleanup plan goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE's 60-day letter to Congress (Feb. 06) noted that beginning in March 2006 DOE will provide a new semiannual Report to Congress to track progress on accelerated cleanup milestones, including annual budget estimates and life-cycle costs. The first report was submitted to Congress in June 2006, with a followup in October 2006. This report, titled "Report to Congress: Milestone Report: Complex-Wide and Site-Specific Progress Toward Accelerated Cleanup Milestones" provides a status, by each site and by each of 16 performance measures, of the progress DOE has made in meeting milestones. The report uses a stoplight method (red-yellow-green) to provide the reader an indication of actual performance against planned performance. The DOE contact noted that the next report to Congress is due March 2007.

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