Management challenges stymie hazardous waste cleanup

The Energy Department's poor record of overseeing contracts is threatening projects critical to public health and national security.

Last summer, a former Energy Department executive conducted an independent analysis of plutonium waste at five former U.S. nuclear weapons production facilities and reached a startling conclusion: During the past 45 years, about 12.7 metric tons of plutonium were discarded at the sites, more than three times the department's last official estimate, which was in 1996. The findings suggest Energy faces a far bigger job in cleaning up the radioactive waste generated through decades of nuclear weapons production than previously believed.

The dramatic increase, wrote Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, which published the findings in July, is likely due to three factors: the reclassification of some production residue as waste, previous underestimates of material lost through the production process, and improvements in the way data is characterized.

Nobody really knows how much plutonium the United States produced and buried in the wake of World War II because of significant record-keeping gaps during the first 25 years of weapons production, says Alvarez, who was deputy assistant secretary for national security and the environment during the Clinton administration. The implications of his analysis are most profound at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in southeastern Washington state, where government engineers and scientists built the first industrial-size nuclear reactor and a plant to extract plutonium from the resulting fuel rods, an effort that produced the Fat Man bomb detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945. During a 40-year period, nine reactors at the 586-square-mile reservation on the Columbia River produced nearly one-third of the nation's plutonium-more than any other site. Today, Hanford is the largest nuclear waste dump in the Western Hemisphere and poses a long-term environmental threat to the region.

Cleaning up the radioactive waste that is the legacy of Cold War nuclear weapons production is one of the most complex challenges government faces, and it's just one of the missions the Energy Department inherited after it was created in 1977. Ensuring the safety and efficacy of the nuclear stockpile is another, along with the Obama administration's mandate to lay the groundwork for a post-petroleum economy through an intensive renewable fuels program. That's a worrisome list of critical missions for a department with a long track record of budget-busting projects that have failed to deliver promised solutions on schedule. So troubling are Energy's management problems it has been on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list of programs most vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse since the list was established in 1990. In 2009, the National Academy of Public Administration weighed in with a blistering report on management at the department, especially concerning the way it oversees personnel and contracts.

"They face enormous challenges in what they do in terms of cleanup and other programs," says Eugene Aloise, director of natural resources and environment at GAO. Further complicating Energy's work is the fact that it is the most contractor-dependent civilian agency in government. The department has about 15,000 federal employees, many of whom oversee an estimated 100,000 contractors. GAO singled out shortcomings in contract management in putting the department on its high-risk list.

While Energy has made progress in overseeing contracts and projects, Aloise says it's not enough. "We are still finding the same contract management problems we have found for years-lack of accountability, lack of holding contractors accountable for overruns, large overruns, large schedule misses, those kinds of things," he says. GAO's recent audit of efforts to close underground radioactive waste tanks at the Savannah River Site in southwestern South Carolina showed that "before one shovel of dirt was moved at the tank waste program down there the estimate rose $1.4 billion," Aloise says. In addition, the tanks are not likely to be closed on schedule due to construction delays, GAO found.

"You can't go to Congress, to the appropriators, and say we need X million dollars to build this project when you know, you know, it's going to cost many more times that amount, but you are afraid you won't get the budget if you ask for all of it upfront. It's those kinds of things that need to change," Aloise says.

In the December issue of Government Executive, Katherine McIntire Peters looks at the battle to clean up Energy contracting. Click here to read the full story.