oversight

Nuclear Waste: Challenges to Achieving Potential Savings in DOE's High-Level Waste Cleanup Program

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2003-06-17.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

             United States General Accounting Office

GAO          Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee
             on Oversight and Investigations,
             Committee on Energy and Commerce,
             House of Representatives

June 2003
             NUCLEAR WASTE

             Challenges to
             Achieving Potential
             Savings in DOE’s
             High-Level Waste
             Cleanup Program




GAO-03-593
                                                June 2003


                                                NUCLEAR WASTE

                                                Challenges to Achieving Potential
Highlights of GAO-03-593, a report to the       Savings in DOE’s High-Level Waste
Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight
and Investigations, Committee on Energy         Cleanup Program
and Commerce, House of Representatives




The Department of Energy (DOE)                  DOE’s initiative for reducing the costs and time required for cleanup of
oversees one of the largest cleanup             high-level wastes is still evolving. DOE’s main strategy for treating high-level
programs in history—the treatment               waste continues to include separating and concentrating much of the
and disposal of 94 million gallons              radioactivity into a smaller volume for disposal in a geologic repository.
of highly radioactive nuclear waste             Under the initiative, DOE sites are evaluating other approaches, such as
from the nation’s nuclear weapons
program. This waste is currently at
                                                disposing of more waste on site. DOE’s current savings estimate for these
DOE sites in Washington, Idaho,                 approaches is $29 billion, but the estimate may not be reliable or complete.
and South Carolina. In 2002, DOE                For example, the savings estimate does not adequately reflect uncertainties
began an initiative to reduce the               or take into account the timing of when savings will be realized.
estimated $105-billion cost and
70-year time frame of this cleanup.             DOE faces significant legal and technical challenges to realize these
GAO was asked to determine the                  savings. A key legal challenge involves DOE’s authority to decide that
status of this initiative, the legal            some waste with relatively low concentrations of radioactivity can be
and technical challenges DOE faces              disposed of on site. This authority is being challenged in court, and a
in implementing it, and any further             prolonged challenge or an adverse decision could seriously hamper DOE’s
opportunities to reduce costs or                ability to meet its accelerated schedules. A key technical challenge is that
improve program management.
                                                DOE’s approach relies on laboratory testing to confirm separation of the
                                                waste into high-level and low-activity portions. At the Hanford Site in
                                                Washington State, DOE plans to build a facility before integrated testing of
GAO recommends that                             the separation technology—an approach that has failed on other projects in
DOE (1) seek clarification of its               the past, resulting in significant cost increases and schedule delays.
authority to designate waste as
other than high-level waste if a                DOE is exploring proposals, such as increasing the amount of high-level
prolonged legal challenge occurs;               waste in each disposal canister, which if successful could result in billions
(2) conduct integrated testing of
waste separations components
                                                of dollars in additional savings. However, considerable evaluation remains to
before completing a full-scale                  be done. DOE also has opportunities to improve program management by
facility at the Hanford Site; and               fully addressing recurring weaknesses GAO has identified in DOE’s
(3) ensure that DOE management                  management of cleanup projects.
practices include conducting
rigorous analyses, following best               Waste Storage Tanks under Construction at DOE’s Hanford Site, September 1947
practices for incorporating new
technologies, and being cautious
about using a concurrent
design/build approach for nuclear
facilities. In commenting on the
report, DOE agreed to consider
seeking clarification of its authority
as appropriate, but said that its
practices met the intent of the
other two recommendations. GAO
believes further improvements
are needed.
www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-593.

To view the full product, including the scope   Many of the waste storage tanks, such as those above, were built in the 1940s to 1960s. These
and methodology, click on the link above.       tanks, now underground, are used to store high-level waste and have exceeded their design life of
For more information, contact Robin M.          10-40 years. Some have leaked waste into the soil.
Nazzaro at (202) 512-3841 or
nazzaror@gao.gov.
Contents


Letter                                                                                     1
               Results in Brief                                                            2
               Background                                                                  5
               DOE’s High-Level Waste Is a Complex Mixture That Requires a
                 Multi-Step Process to Prepare for Disposal                                9
               DOE’s Initiative for Accelerating Cleanup Is Still Evolving, with the
                 Extent of Savings Uncertain                                             16
               Key Legal and Technical Challenges Could Limit Potential Savings
                 from DOE’s Accelerated Cleanup Initiative                               23
               Opportunities Exist to Explore Additional Cost Savings and
                 to Strengthen Program Management                                        35
               Conclusions                                                               42
               Recommendations for Executive Action                                      43
               Agency Comments                                                           44

Appendix I     Scope and Methodology                                                      48



Appendix II    Comments from the Department of Energy                                     50



Appendix III   GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments                                      64



Tables
               Table 1: Major Short-Lived Radionuclides Contributing to the
                        Current Radioactivity in DOE’s Untreated
                        High-Level Waste                                                 12
               Table 2: Main Steps in DOE’s Approach to Preparing High-Level
                        Waste for Disposal                                               15
               Table 3: Examples of Proposals under Study for Accelerating the
                        High-Level Waste Treatment Process                               19
               Table 4: DOE’s Estimated Cost Savings from Proposals to
                        Accelerate Cleanup of High-Level Waste                           20
               Table 5: Description and Status of DOE Incidental Waste
                        Determinations for Tank Waste                                    26




               Page i                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Figures
          Figure 1: Waste Storage Tanks under Construction at DOE’s
                   Hanford Site, September 1947                                                     7
          Figure 2. Physical Forms of DOE’s Untreated High-Level Waste as a
                   Percentage of Total Waste Volume                                                 10
          Figure 3: Natural Decay of Radionuclides in DOE’s Untreated
                   High-Level Waste from 2002 to 2102                                               13
          Figure 4: Simplified Description of Key Steps in Hanford’s
                   Proposed Process for Separating High-Level
                   Waste Constituents                                                               31




          Abbreviations

          AEA               Atomic Energy Act of 1954
          DOE               Department of Energy
          EPA               Environmental Protection Agency
          NRC               Nuclear Regulatory Commission
          NRDC              Natural Resources Defense Council
          OMB               Office of Management and Budget
          RCRA              Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976


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          permission from GAO. It may contain copyrighted graphics, images or other materials.
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          copyrighted materials separately from GAO’s product.




          Page ii                                                GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
United States General Accounting Office
Washington, DC 20548




                                   June 17, 2003

                                   The Honorable James C. Greenwood
                                   Chairman, Subcommittee on Oversight
                                    and Investigations
                                   Committee on Energy and Commerce
                                   House of Representatives

                                   Dear Mr. Chairman:

                                   The Department of Energy (DOE) oversees one of the largest cleanup
                                   programs in history: the treatment and disposal of nuclear waste created
                                   as a result of the nation’s nuclear weapons program. As of 2003, one
                                   major aspect of this effort, DOE’s high-level waste cleanup program,
                                   was estimated to cost nearly $105 billion and take decades to complete.
                                   High-level waste contains radioactive elements, such as plutonium and
                                   uranium, in concentrations sufficient to require long-term isolation from
                                   the environment. DOE’s high-level waste results from the process of
                                   dissolving used (or “spent”) nuclear fuel to remove plutonium, uranium,
                                   and other useful materials. During some of the processing, solvents and
                                   other materials can be introduced, creating waste that is both radioactive
                                   and chemically hazardous. About 94 million gallons of untreated high-level
                                   waste is stored at DOE facilities at Hanford, Washington; Savannah River,
                                   South Carolina; and near Idaho Falls, Idaho—primarily in underground
                                   tanks. This waste would fill an area the size of a football field to a depth of
                                   about 260 feet. Since the 1980s, DOE has been actively working on ways
                                   to prepare this waste for permanent disposal. These plans center on
                                   eventually placing high-level waste in an underground repository where
                                   it can be safely stored for thousands of years.

                                   After investing more than 20 years and about $18 billion, DOE
                                   acknowledged that the program to clean up its high-level waste was
                                   far behind schedule, far over budget, and in need of major change. In
                                   February 2002, DOE began an initiative to accelerate the schedule and
                                   reduce the costs of cleaning up high-level and other radioactive and
                                   hazardous waste, while focusing its resources on reducing risks to
                                   human health and the environment at its sites. Although this initiative
                                   covers DOE’s entire cleanup program, it may have the most significant
                                   impact on DOE’s plans for high-level waste, which is the highest
                                   cost component of DOE’s cleanup program. In this context, you asked
                                   us to (1) describe the components of DOE’s high-level waste and the


                                   Page 1                                         GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                   process involved in preparing the waste for permanent disposal,
                   (2) discuss DOE’s initiative for accelerating its high-level waste
                   cleanup and assess the reliability of the associated potential cost
                   savings, (3) identify the legal and technical challenges DOE faces
                   regarding this initiative, and (4) determine any additional opportunities
                   to reduce the costs, as well as opportunities to improve the management
                   of its high-level waste program.

                   This report is based largely on our detailed work at DOE sites where
                   high-level waste is currently stored and our analysis of cost information
                   and legal documents pertaining to the high-level waste program. We
                   obtained the assistance of a physicist with extensive experience in the
                   nuclear field to evaluate the technical aspects of DOE’s high-level waste
                   program. A detailed discussion of our scope and methodology is included
                   in appendix I.


                   DOE’s high-level waste has many types of components, ranging from
Results in Brief   radioactive isotopes and corrosive chemicals to the water in which much
                   of this material was initially discharged. Even the radioactive components
                   of the waste vary greatly: a small portion will remain dangerously
                   radioactive for millions of years, while the vast majority will lose much
                   of their radioactivity more quickly, so that more than 90 percent of the
                   current radioactivity will be gone within 100 years. To prepare this waste
                   for permanent disposal and meet commitments made to state and federal
                   regulators, DOE generally plans to separate the waste into two waste
                   streams, one with high levels of radioactivity and the other with lower
                   concentrations of radioactivity. DOE expects this process will concentrate
                   at least 90 percent of the radioactivity into a volume that is significantly
                   smaller than the current total volume of waste. DOE plans to immobilize
                   and bury the separated highly radioactive portion in a permanent
                   underground repository. The remaining waste components will be
                   immobilized—usually in a cement-like material—and disposed of at the
                   location where the waste is currently stored or at some other location.

                   DOE’s initiative to accelerate the cleanup is evolving, and its savings
                   estimates are changing accordingly, although we have concerns about the
                   reliability of those estimates. DOE originally estimated it could shorten
                   the waste cleanup schedule by 20-35 years and achieve up to $34 billion in
                   savings at its three high-level waste sites. To help achieve these schedule
                   and cost reductions, DOE has identified alternative treatment and disposal
                   strategies, involving such steps as developing ways to permanently dispose
                   of more of the radioactive waste at current sites rather than moving it to


                   Page 2                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
the planned underground repository. As of April 2003, DOE’s strategies
were still being developed, and DOE had lowered the original savings
estimate to $29 billion. However, our assessment of the revised estimate
indicates that it may not be reliable. For example, the analysis does not
take into account all costs associated with alternative treatment strategies.
Also, the estimates of savings do not compare costs on the basis of
“present value,” where dollars to be saved in future years are discounted
to a common year to reflect the time value of money. At Savannah River,
such an adjustment would lower the site’s savings estimate of $5.4 billion
for accelerated waste processing to $2.8 billion (in 2003 dollars).

DOE is facing significant legal and technical challenges in implementing
a number of the alternative treatment and disposal strategies. A key legal
challenge linked to the strategies under consideration at all three sites
involves DOE’s authority to determine that some waste components
with relatively low concentrations of radioactivity can be treated and
permanently disposed of at the sites where the waste is currently stored.
For example, DOE’s Hanford Site has developed a treatment and disposal
approach that will prepare about 90 percent of its tank waste for
permanent disposal at Hanford rather than shipping it to an underground
repository. This approach involves DOE determining that not all of
the tank waste is high-level waste. DOE’s authority to make such
determinations is being challenged in court. A prolonged court battle
could seriously hamper DOE’s ability to meet accelerated schedules it has
set under its new initiative. Regarding technical challenges, key elements
of DOE’s accelerated cleanup strategies rely on technologies for
separating the waste components that have not been fully developed or
tested. For example, because of schedule constraints and concerns about
cost increases, the Hanford Site plans to forgo full integrated testing of its
proposed process for separating wastes into high-level and low-activity
portions until after facility construction is complete. This approach is not
consistent with DOE’s project management guidelines or the advice of
several independent technical experts. On a past project to develop
such facilities, failing to fully test the separation technology has resulted
in significant cost increases and schedule delays. For example, at
DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, an attempt to speed
implementation failed, after nearly $500 million had been spent on the
project. DOE now plans to spend an additional $1.8 billion to develop and
implement an alternative separation technology at Savannah River. We are
concerned that DOE’s approach at Hanford may also result in significant
schedule delays and cost increases.




Page 3                                         GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
DOE is exploring additional potential cost savings. In addition, there are
opportunities to improve program management. Additional potential
cost-saving opportunities have come to light since DOE first developed
its initiative, and DOE is beginning to assess these opportunities. The
proposals that offer potential for significant savings are being developed
by the Savannah River and Hanford sites for increasing the amount of
waste that can be concentrated into the canisters destined for the
permanent underground repository. DOE’s data indicates that these
proposals, if successful, could save several billion dollars. Considerable
evaluation of these opportunities remains to be done and cost-saving
estimates have not yet been fully developed, according to DOE officials.
DOE also has opportunities to improve its management of the cleanup
program by addressing management weaknesses that we and others have
identified in the past. When it began the initiative to reduce costs and
accelerate the cleanup schedule, DOE acknowledged it had systemic
problems with the way that the program was managed. Although DOE
has taken steps to improve program management, we have continuing
concerns about management weaknesses in several areas. These include
making key decisions without rigorous supporting analysis, incorporating
technology before it is sufficiently tested, and pursuing a “fast-track”
approach of launching into facility construction before completing
sufficient design work. It does not currently appear that DOE’s
management actions will fully address these weaknesses.

We are recommending that if the current challenge to DOE’s authority
becomes an extended legal process, DOE should seek clarification from
the Congress on the agency’s authority to determine that certain waste
does not need to be treated and disposed of as high-level waste. We are
also recommending that the Secretary of Energy reassess the approach for
incorporating new waste separation technologies at the Hanford site, so
that the technologies are more fully tested to ensure they will work
successfully before a full-scale facility is built. Finally, we are making
recommendations on ways to further strengthen management of the
high-level waste program.

DOE agreed to consider our recommendation regarding clarifying its legal
authority to determine that certain waste does not need to be treated and
disposed of as high-level waste. DOE disagreed with our recommendation
to conduct integrated pilot-scale testing of its waste separations process at
Hanford while constructing a full-scale facility. In addition, regarding
opportunities to improve program management, DOE responded only
about the Hanford Site. DOE said that the management activities at
Hanford were already consistent with our recommendations to conduct


Page 4                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
             rigorous analysis to support decision-making, follow best practices when
             incorporating new technologies into projects, and be cautious about using
             a fast-track approach to designing and building complex nuclear facilities.
             We continue to believe that implementing all of the recommendations in
             this report would help to reduce the risk of costly delays and improve
             overall management of DOE’s entire high-level waste program.


             High-level waste1 contains radioactive components that emit dangerously
Background   intense radiation. Radiation is generated through a decay process in which
             the atoms of a radioactive component (also known as a radionuclide)
             lose their radioactivity by spontaneously releasing energy in the form of
             subatomic particles or rays similar to X-rays. Even short but extremely
             intense exposure to radiation can cause almost immediate health
             problems such as radiation sickness, burns, and, in severe cases, death.
             Excessive exposure to these particles or rays damages cells in living
             tissue and is believed to cause long-term health problems such as genetic
             mutations and an increased risk of cancer. Because of the intense
             radiation emitted from high-level waste, the waste must be isolated and
             handled remotely behind heavy shielding such as a layer of concrete in
             order to protect humans and the environment. In addition to the intense
             radioactivity, some of the radioactive components can be very mobile in
             the environment and may migrate quickly to contaminate the soil and
             groundwater if not immobilized. Besides radioactive components, DOE
             high-level waste also generally contains hazardous components added
             during the process of dissolving used nuclear fuel to remove plutonium
             and other nuclear materials. These hazardous components include
             solvents, acids, caustic sodas, and toxic heavy metals such as chromium
             and lead. Radioactive waste components, when combined with hazardous
             components, are referred to as “mixed wastes.”

             DOE has a vast complex of sites across the nation dedicated to the nuclear
             weapons program, but the high-level waste stemming from reprocessing
             spent fuel to produce weapons material such as plutonium and uranium
             has been limited mainly to three sites—Hanford, Washington; the Idaho
             National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory (“Idaho National




             1
              For this report, we use the term “high-level waste” to refer to the waste that DOE is or
             was managing as high-level waste at its sites.




             Page 5                                                  GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Laboratory”) near Idaho Falls, Idaho; and Savannah River, South Carolina.2
DOE largely ceased production of plutonium and enriched uranium by
1992, but the waste remains. Most of the tanks in which it is stored have
already exceeded their design life. For example, many of Hanford’s and
Savannah River’s tanks were built in the 1940s to 1960s and were designed
to last 10-40 years. (Figure 1 shows waste storage tanks being constructed
at the Hanford Site.) These tanks, most of which are underground, are
used to store high-level waste. Leaks from some of these tanks were first
detected at Hanford in 1956 and at Savannah River in 1959. Given the age
and deteriorating condition of some of the tanks, there is concern that
some of them will leak additional waste into the soil, where it may migrate
to the water table.3




2
  DOE also agreed to clean up high-level waste at another site—the West Valley
Demonstration Project at West Valley, New York—where the state sponsored reprocessing
of both commercial and DOE spent nuclear fuel. Treatment and preparation of this waste
for disposal was completed in September 2002.
3
 DOE has reported that more than one million gallons of waste have been unintentionally
released from the tanks into the soil through leaks at the Hanford Site. In addition, DOE
also intentionally discharged about 121 million gallons of radioactive tank waste at the
Hanford Site directly into the ground from 1946 to 1966. At the Savannah River Site, one of
the 51 tanks is estimated to have leaked tens of gallons into the soil.




Page 6                                                 GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Figure 1: Waste Storage Tanks under Construction at DOE’s Hanford Site,
September 1947




Treatment and disposal of high-level waste produced at DOE facilities
are governed by a number of federal laws, including laws that define the
roles of DOE and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in waste
management. The Atomic Energy Act of 1954 (AEA) and the Energy
Reorganization Act of 1974 established responsibility for the regulatory
control of radioactive materials including DOE’s high-level wastes.4 The
Energy Reorganization Act of 1974 assigned the NRC the function of



4
 The AEA authorized the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to provide for the safe storage
of radioactive waste from defense-related activities. 42 U.S.C. 2121(a)(3). Later, the Energy
Reorganization Act of 1974 abolished the AEC, transferring responsibilities to the Energy
Research and Development Administration (ERDA)—DOE’s predecessor—and the NRC.
42 U.S.C. 5814, 5841. In 1977, ERDA was abolished, and its functions were transferred to
the newly established DOE, explicitly leaving the management of the government’s
radioactive waste in the hands of DOE. 42 U.S.C. 7151(a), 7133(a)(8).




Page 7                                                  GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
licensing facilities that are expressly authorized for long-term storage of
high-level radioactive waste generated by DOE and others.5 The Nuclear
Waste Policy Act of 1982, as amended, defines high-level radioactive waste
as “the highly radioactive material resulting from the reprocessing of spent
nuclear fuel, including liquid waste produced directly in reprocessing and
any solid material derived from such liquid waste that contains fission
products in sufficient concentrations, and…other highly radioactive
material that the [NRC]…determines…requires permanent isolation.”6
The act also established a process for developing and siting a geologic
repository (a permanent deep disposal system) for the disposal of
high-level waste and spent fuel. Regarding DOE’s high-level waste, the act
provided that unless the President determined that a separate repository
was required for such waste, DOE should arrange for the use of
commercial repositories developed under the act for disposal of its
defense waste.7 In 1985, President Reagan decided that a separate
repository for defense waste was not needed. Under amendments the
Federal Facility Compliance Act of 1992 made to the Resource
Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA), DOE generally must
develop waste treatment plans for its sites that contain mixed wastes.8
These plans are approved by states that the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) has authorized to administer RCRA or by EPA in states that
have not been so authorized.

DOE carries out its high-level waste cleanup program under the leadership
of the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management and in
consultation with a variety of stakeholders. In addition to the EPA and
state environmental agencies that have regulatory authority in states
where the sites are located, stakeholders include county and local
governmental agencies, citizen groups, advisory groups, and Native
American tribes. These stakeholders advocate their views through
various public involvement processes including site-specific advisory
boards. Over the years, much of the cleanup activity has been
implemented under compliance agreements between DOE and the
regulatory agencies. These compliance agreements provide for



5
    42 U.S.C. 5842.
6
    42 U.S.C. 10101(12).
7
    42 U.S.C. 10107(b)(2).
8
    42 U.S.C. 6939c(b).




Page 8                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                              establishing legally enforceable schedule milestones that govern the
                              work to be done.

                              The waste in the tanks at Hanford, Savannah River, and the Idaho
DOE’s High-Level              National Laboratory is a complex mixture of radioactive and hazardous
Waste Is a Complex            components, and DOE’s process for preparing it for disposal is designed to
                              separate much of the radioactive material from other waste components.
Mixture That Requires         In the tanks, this mixture has transformed into a variety of liquid and
a Multi-Step Process          semisolid forms. The radioactive components are of many different types;
                              some remain dangerous for millions of years, while others lose much of
to Prepare                    their radioactivity in relatively short periods of time. Because most of the
for Disposal                  radioactive components decay relatively rapidly, over 90 percent of the
                              current radioactivity will dissipate within 100 years. DOE plans to isolate
                              the radioactive components and prepare the waste for disposal through
                              the use of an extensive and sequential multi-step treatment process. To
                              fulfill its current commitment to federal and state regulators, DOE
                              expects this process to concentrate at least 90 percent of the radioactivity
                              into a much smaller volume that can be permanently isolated for at
                              least 10,000 years in a geologic repository. DOE plans to dispose of the
                              remaining waste of relatively low radioactivity on-site near the surface
                              of the ground, such as in vaults or canisters, or at other designated
                              disposal facilities.


Waste Has Turned into a       High-level waste generally exists in a variety of physical forms and
Variety of Forms              layers inside the underground tanks, depending on the physical and
                              chemical properties of the waste components. The waste in the tanks
                              takes three main forms:

                          •   Sludge: The denser, water insoluble components generally settle to the
                              bottom of the tank to form a thick layer known as sludge, which has the
                              consistency of peanut butter.
                          •   Saltcake: Above the sludge may be water-soluble components such as
                              sodium salts that crystallize or solidify out of the waste solution to form a
                              moist sand-like material called saltcake.
                          •   Liquid: Above or between the denser layers may be liquids comprised of
                              water and dissolved salts called supernate.

                              As figure 2 shows, 44 percent of the total volume of high-level waste is in
                              saltcake form, followed by liquid and sludges. In addition, a small portion
                              of the waste volume is also in solid form and is stored in facilities other
                              than tanks. At the Idaho National Laboratory, some waste is stored in
                              stainless steel bins, enclosed in concrete vaults, after having undergone a



                              Page 9                                         GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
thermal process that converted the liquid into a solid granular substance
called calcine. At Hanford, some high-level waste was retrieved from the
tanks, dried, and stored as solid material in stainless steel capsules.9

Figure 2. Physical Forms of DOE’s Untreated High-Level Waste as a Percentage of
Total Waste Volume




Note: The values in figure 2 are for all untreated high-level waste across the DOE complex as of
August 2002. At the sites, the actual distribution of the waste into the various physical forms may
differ from that shown above.


The various layers of waste in the tanks are not uniformly distributed and
often differ from tank to tank and even from place to place within a tank.
Depending on how the waste was generated and whether it was mixed or
transferred from one tank to another, the layers of waste within any given
tank may be unevenly distributed and liquid is interspersed between
layers of saltcake. Some tanks contain all three main waste forms—sludge,
saltcake, and liquid—while others contain only one or two forms. Tank
contents also vary among sites. For example, at the Idaho National



9
 From 1967 to 1985, DOE encapsulated cesium and strontium from the tank waste at the
Hanford Site to reduce the amount of heat generated in the tanks and for lease to non-DOE
organizations for beneficial use. All of the leased capsules have been returned to Hanford.




Page 10                                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                         Laboratory most tanks contain primarily liquid waste because the waste
                         was kept in an acidic form, while at Hanford and Savannah River, most
                         tanks contain waste in two or three physical forms.

Much of the              The radioactive components of the high-level waste vary greatly in terms
Radioactivity Declines   of how long they remain radioactive, with the vast majority losing their
Relatively Quickly       radioactivity within years or decades. Each radioactive component, or
                         radionuclide, in high-level waste loses its radioactivity at a rate that differs
                         for each component. This rate of decay, which cannot be changed, is
                         measured in “half-lives”—that is, the time required for half of the
                         unstable atoms to decay and release their radiation. The half-lives of
                         major radionuclides in the high-level waste range from 2.6 minutes for
                         barium-137m10 to 24,131 years for plutonium-239. To illustrate, for any
                         given number of radioactive barium-137m atoms, half will lose their
                         radioactivity within 2.6 minutes. After another 2.6 minutes, half of the
                         remaining unstable atoms will lose their radioactivity, leaving only one-
                         fourth of the original number of unstable atoms still radioactive. The
                         process is the same, but the half-life intervals much longer, for long-lived
                         radionuclides, such as plutonium-239 atoms. For radioactive plutonium-
                         239 atoms, half will lose their radioactivity within 24,131 years, and half of
                         the remainder will lose their radioactivity after another 24,131 years.

                         Currently, nearly all of the radioactivity in DOE’s high-level waste
                         originates from radionuclides with half-lives of about 30 years or less. As
                         table 1 shows, about 98 percent of the radioactivity of the high-level waste
                         comes from four radionuclides: barium-137m, cesium-137, strontium-90,
                         and yttrium-90. Of these, cesium-137 is the longest lived, with a half-life of
                         30.17 years.




                         10
                           The “m” in barium-137m denotes barium-137 that has an excess of energy and will
                         undergo radioactive decay to barium-137, which is not radioactive.




                         Page 11                                              GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Table 1: Major Short-Lived Radionuclides Contributing to the Current Radioactivity
in DOE’s Untreated High-Level Waste

                                                                     Percent of total radioactivity
                                                       Half-life     in DOE’s high-level waste as
    Major short-lived radionuclides                    in years                   of August 2002
    Barium-137ma                                    0.0000049b                                25.6
    Yttrium-90a                                         0.0073c                               22.8
    Strontium-90                                           28.6                               22.8
    Cesium-137                                            30.17                               27.0
    Major short-lived radionuclides total                                                     98.2
Source: GAO analysis of DOE data.

Notes: The radionuclides listed contain the largest amount of radioactivity in curies relative to other
radionuclides in DOE’s untreated high-level waste. Other radionuclides, including those with longer
half-lives, contain the remaining balance of the total current radioactivity.
a
 Barium-137m and yttrium-90 are generated from the radioactive decay of cesium-137 and
strontium-90 respectively. Consequently, as long as cesium-137 and strontium-90 are present,
barium-137m and yttrium-90 will also be present.
b
    2.6 minutes.
c
    2.7 days.


The relatively short half-lives of most of the radionuclides in the waste
means that much of the total current radioactivity will decay within
100 years. For example, within 30 years, about 50 percent of the current
radioactivity in DOE’s wastes will have decayed away, and within
100 years, this figure will rise to more than 90 percent. Figure 3 shows the
pattern of decay, using 2002 to 2102 as the 100-year period. Extending the
analysis beyond the 100-year period shown in the figure, in 300 years,
99.8 percent of the radioactivity will have decayed, leaving 0.2 percent of
the current radioactivity remaining.




Page 12                                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Figure 3: Natural Decay of Radionuclides in DOE’s Untreated High-Level Waste
from 2002 to 2102




Note: Radioactivity is measured in a unit called a curie. One curie equals 37 billion atomic
disintegrations per second.


Despite the relatively rapid decay of the current radioactivity in high-level
waste, a variety of long-lived radionuclides will remain radioactive for
a very long time and must be isolated from the environment.
Radionuclides with half-lives greater than cesium-137 (30.17 years),
such as plutonium-239 and americium-241, which have half-lives of
24,131 years and 432.2 years respectively, will continue to pose a threat
to human health and the environment for thousands of years. Once the
radionuclides with relatively short half-lives have decayed away, the
longer-lived radionuclides will be the primary source of radioactivity in the
waste. Some of these long-lived radionuclides, such as technetium-99, are
potentially very mobile in the environment and therefore must remain
permanently isolated. If these highly mobile radionuclides leak out or
are released into the environment, they can contaminate the soil
and water.




Page 13                                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Processing Can       DOE’s process for dealing with its high-level waste centers on separating
Concentrate the      the various components of the waste so that the portion that is most
Radioactivity into   radioactive can be concentrated into a much smaller volume. While
                     currently all high-level waste is radioactive and dangerous, significant
a Much Smaller       portions of the waste, such as contaminated water, will have low levels of
Volume of Waste      radioactivity if separated from most of the radionuclides that are highly
                     radioactive. Contaminated water currently represents 54 percent of the
                     total waste by volume across the DOE complex.11 In overview, DOE’s
                     process generally involves separating the waste into two main streams.
                     One, the high-level portion, will contain at least 90 percent of the
                     radioactivity and a small portion of the waste volume. The other stream,
                     the low-activity portion, will contain 10 percent or less of the total
                     radioactivity but most of the waste volume.

                     DOE’s plans for treating the waste currently call for a set of steps to be
                     applied to the waste at each site. The primary steps are shown in table 2.




                     11
                       The percentage of the waste volume that is contaminated water varies among sites.
                     Contaminated water is a significant constituent of the waste by volume because water is
                     used to cool the waste, dilute the waste for treatment and transfer from one location to
                     another, and flush out waste from pipelines and facilities.




                     Page 14                                               GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Table 2: Main Steps in DOE’s Approach to Preparing High-Level Waste for Disposal

    Step in process    Description
    Characterization   Determination of the specific physical, chemical, and radiological
                       components of the wastes in each tank. This step is important
                       because some tanks contain a complex mixture of unknown waste
                       constituents, and detailed knowledge of tank contents is needed to
                       determine how to best retrieve, pretreat, and treat the wastes.
                       Characterization involves analyzing samples drawn from the tanks
                       and using process knowledge such as waste transfer records and
                       results from prior samples.
    Retrieval          Removal of the stored waste from the tanks by pumping or other
                       means and its transfer to treatment facilities. Because the waste
                       exists in liquid, solid, and other forms, certain steps may be
                       needed to turn the waste into a form that will allow the pumping
                       to take place.
    Pretreatment       Separation of the high-level portion of the waste from the low-activity
                       portion and from other nonradioactive elements, such as aluminum,
                       organic compounds, and salts. Evaporation is used during
                       pretreatment to reduce the volume of contaminated water in the
                       waste. This step is desirable because it decreases the amount of
                       high-level waste that must be treated and sent to the high-level
                       waste repository. The remaining low-activity waste can then be
                       treated and disposed of less expensively on-site.
    Treatment          Immobilization of the waste. DOE plans to stabilize the high-level
                       portion of the waste separated during pretreatment by mixing it with
                       a glass-forming material and melting the mixture into glass. The
                       molten glass will be poured into stainless steel canisters to harden.
                       The remaining low-activity portion of the waste will generally be
                       mixed with cement and other materials so that it will harden into a
                       cement-like substance called grout.a
    Disposal           Final emplacement of the immobilized waste so as to ensure
                       isolation from the surrounding environment until it is no longer
                       dangerously radioactive. DOE plans to temporarily store the
                       canisters containing the high-level portion of the waste on-site until
                       an underground geologic repository is ready to receive them
                       permanently. The remaining immobilized waste will be disposed of
                       on-site or at other designated near surface disposal sites.
Source: GAO.
a
At the Hanford Site, DOE currently plans to vitrify the low-activity portion of the waste.


DOE plans to permanently dispose of the high-level portion of the
separated waste in a geologic repository developed pursuant to the
Nuclear Waste Policy Act. This repository is intended to isolate highly
radioactive waste materials from the public and the environment for
at least 10,000 years. The remaining low-activity portion would be
immobilized in accordance with federal and state environmental laws and
the agreements made with state regulators and disposed of permanently
on-site or at other designated locations.




Page 15                                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                       Although radionuclides with long half-lives are present in both the
                       high-level and low-activity portions of the waste after the separations
                       processes are concluded, the portion of the waste not sent to the geologic
                       repository will have relatively low levels of radioactivity and long-lived
                       radionuclides. Based on current disposal standards used by the NRC, if
                       the radioactivity of this remaining waste is sufficiently low, it can be
                       disposed of on-site near the surface of the ground, using less complex
                       and expensive techniques than those required for the highly
                       radioactive portion.

                       DOE has successfully applied this process in a demonstration project
                       at the West Valley site in New York state. At West Valley, separation of
                       the low-activity portion from the high-level portion of the waste reduced
                       by 90 percent the quantity of waste requiring permanent isolation and
                       disposal at a geologic repository. The high-level portion was stabilized in a
                       glass material (vitrified) and remains stored at the site pending completion
                       of the high-level waste geologic repository and resolution of other issues
                       associated with disposal costs.12 The remaining low-activity portion was
                       mixed with cement-forming materials, poured into drums where it
                       solidified into grout (a cement-like material), and remains stored on-site,
                       awaiting shipment to an off-site disposal facility.


                       DOE’s new initiative, implemented in 2002, attempts to address the
DOE’s Initiative for   schedule delays and increasing costs DOE has encountered in its efforts to
Accelerating Cleanup   treat and dispose of high-level waste. This initiative is still evolving. DOE
                       originally identified several strategies to help it reduce the time needed to
Is Still Evolving,     treat and dispose of the waste. Based on these strategies, DOE set a goal
with the Extent of     of achieving up to $34 billion in savings at its three high-level waste sites
                       and reducing the waste cleanup schedule by about 20 to 35 years
Savings Uncertain      compared to the existing program baseline.13 As of April 2003, DOE’s
                       strategies were still under development, and DOE had revised the
                       savings estimate to $29 billion. However, even the $29 billion estimate may
                       not be reliable. While savings are likely if the strategies are successfully
                       implemented, the extent of the savings is still uncertain.



                       12
                         At Savannah River, high-level sludge from the tanks has also been stabilized in glass
                       material and is currently stored on-site pending completion of the geologic repository. As
                       of August 30, 2002, Savannah River had produced 1,331 canisters of this stabilized waste.
                       13
                         Unless otherwise noted, all dollar estimates are as reported by DOE and are in
                       current dollars.



                       Page 16                                                GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Initiative Centers on    For the most part, DOE’s past efforts to treat and dispose of high-level
Ways to Speed Disposal   waste have been plagued with false starts and failures, resulting in steadily
and Save Money           growing estimates of the program’s total cost. Since the cleanup activities
                         began about 20 years ago, DOE has spent about $18 billion in its attempts
                         to prepare high-level waste for disposal. However, less than 5 percent of
                         the waste has been successfully treated to date. Uncontrolled cost
                         overruns, numerous schedule delays, and unsuccessful attempts to
                         develop treatment processes have pushed the overall estimated cost of the
                         high-level waste program from about $63 billion in 1996 (when the first
                         comprehensive estimates were developed) to nearly $105 billion in 2003.14

                         In an attempt to gain control over DOE’s waste management program and
                         to better ensure its affordability, in February 2002 the Assistant Secretary
                         for Environmental Management undertook a new initiative aimed at
                         accelerating cleanup at DOE’s sites and focusing on more rapid reduction
                         of environmental risks. The initiative came as a result of an internal
                         review of the cleanup program, which identified numerous problems
                         and recommended a number of corrective actions. Among other
                         things, the review noted that the cleanup program was not based on a
                         comprehensive, coherent, technically supported risk prioritization; was
                         not focused on accelerating risk reduction; and was not addressing the
                         challenges of uncontrolled cost and schedule growth. A main focus of the
                         initiative is high-level waste, including both the technical approach to
                         treating the waste and improving how DOE manages the contracts and
                         project activities.15

                         DOE developed strategies to speed the cleanup and reduce risk at all
                         three sites. Many of these proposals involved ways to do one or more of
                         the following:




                         14
                            Both of these lifecycle cost estimates reflect actual program costs incurred from fiscal
                         year 1982 to the year of the estimates, and include estimated costs through completion of
                         cleanup.
                         15
                           U.S. Department of Energy, A Review of the Environmental Management Program
                         (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 4, 2002).




                         Page 17                                                 GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
•   Dealing with some tank waste as low-level or transuranic16 waste, rather
    than as high-level waste. Doing so would eliminate the need to prepare the
    waste for off-site disposal in the geologic repository for high-level waste.
    Disposing of waste in the repository currently is based on immobilizing the
    waste in a glass-like substance through a process called vitrification.
•   Completing the waste treatment more quickly by using additional or
    supplemental technologies for treating some of the waste. For example,
    DOE’s Hanford Site is considering using up to four supplemental
    technologies, in addition to vitrification, to process its low-activity waste.
    DOE believes these technologies are needed to help ensure it can meet a
    schedule milestone date of 2028 agreed to with regulators to complete
    waste processing. Without these technologies, DOE believes waste
    treatment would not be completed before 2048.
•   Segregating the waste more fully than initially planned and tailoring waste
    treatment to each of the four segregated waste types. By doing so, DOE
    plans to apply less costly treatment methods to waste with lower
    concentrations of radioactivity.
•   Closing waste storage tanks earlier than expected. DOE plans to begin
    closing tanks earlier than scheduled, thereby avoiding the operating costs
    involved in maintaining the tanks and monitoring the wastes.




    16
      Low-level radioactive waste is defined as radioactive material that is not high-level
    radioactive waste, spent nuclear fuel, transuranic waste, or certain by-product material
    (the tailings or wastes produced by the extraction or concentration or uranium or thorium
    from any ore processed primarily for its source material content). 42 U.S.C. 10101(16).
    Transuranic wastes come primarily from reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel and from
    fabrication of nuclear weapons. Transuranic waste is defined as waste with radionuclides
    with atomic numbers greater than 92 (that is, uranium) and having half-lives greater than
    20 years in concentrations greater than 100 nanocuries per gram.




    Page 18                                               GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                                              Table 3 shows major site-by-site proposals that have been made.

Table 3: Examples of Proposals under Study for Accelerating the High-Level Waste Treatment Process

 Site                                      Types of proposals
 Hanford (Washington State)                • Building one higher capacity vitrification facility to process the waste and eliminating a
                                             second large facility.
                                           • Developing supplemental technologies to treat and immobilize a large fraction of the low-
                                             activity waste outside of the vitrification facility.
                                           • Using a single system to retrieve the waste from each tank rather than two systems as
                                             initially planned.
                                           • Accelerating the shipment of waste to the repository.
                                           • Closing tanks earlier.
 Savannah River (South Carolina)           • Conducting more thorough waste separations than initially planned and then tailoring
                                             waste treatment separately to each waste stream. This would allow Savannah River to do
                                             the following:
                                                Apply less costly treatments than initially planned to the low-activity waste streams.
                                                      For example, DOE will remove waste with the lowest concentrations of radioactivity
                                                      and treat it directly by grouting it, rather than first processing it through a more
                                                      costly pretreatment facility.
                                                Adjust vitrification of high-level sludges to each individual batch of waste processed.
                                                      By doing so, DOE is exploring methods to place about 25 percent more waste in
                                                      each canister, reducing the overall number of canisters that will need to be
                                                      produced and stored at the repository.
                                           •   Closing tanks 8 years earlier than scheduled.
 Idaho National Laboratory (Idaho)         • Repackaging calcined waste and shipping it directly for disposal at the geological
                                             repository, rather than vitrifying it.
                                           • Classifying the remaining liquid tank wastes as transuranic wastes, which would
                                             require less costly treatment than previously planned before being shipped off site to a
                                             transuranic waste repository.
Source: GAO analysis of DOE information.



                                              DOE’s initial estimates in August 2002 were that, if the proposals were
                                              successfully implemented, total savings could be about $34 billion
                                              compared to the baseline cost estimate in place when the accelerated
                                              initiative began. As of April 2003, the savings estimate associated with the
                                              new strategies had been revised to about $29 billion (see table 4). DOE
                                              officials told us many of their new strategies are still under development
                                              and that savings estimates are still subject to additional revision.




                                              Page 19                                                 GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                            Table 4: DOE’s Estimated Cost Savings from Proposals to Accelerate Cleanup of
                            High-Level Waste

                             Dollars in billions
                                                                                                                    Estimated
                                                               Current baseline               Accelerated        savings from
                                                                  lifecycle cost            lifecycle cost        accelerated
                             Site                                      estimate                  estimate           initiatives
                             Idaho National Laboratory                   $10.07                      $3.10                $6.97
                             Hanford                                       56.19                     41.67                14.52
                             Savannah River                                18.82                     11.49                 7.33
                             Totals                                      $85.08                    $56.26               $28.82
                            Source: DOE.

                            Notes: West Valley is not included in this table because high-level waste cleanup at the site was
                            essentially completed in Sept. 2002.

                            Amounts are in billions of current dollars, fiscal year 2003 to end of cleanup.




Current Savings Estimates   Our review of these savings estimates suggests that they may not yet
May Not Be Reliable         be reliable and that the actual amounts to be saved if DOE successfully
                            implements the strategies may be substantially different from what
                            DOE is projecting. We have several concerns about the reliability
                            and completeness of the savings estimates. These concerns include
                            the accuracy of baseline cost estimates from which savings are calculated,
                            whether all appropriate costs are included in the analysis, and whether the
                            savings estimates properly reflect uncertainties or the timing of
                            the savings.

Baseline Costs Are Not      DOE’s current lifecycle cost baseline is used as the base cost from
Fully Reliable              which potential savings associated with any improvements are measured.
                            However, in recent years, we and others have raised concerns about the
                            reliability of DOE’s baseline cost estimates. In a 1999 report, we noted that
                            DOE lacked a standard methodology for sites to use in developing their
                            lifecycle cost baselines, raising a concern about the reliability of data used
                            to develop these cost estimates.17 DOE’s Office of Inspector General also
                            raised a concern in a 1999 review of DOE project estimates, noting that
                            several project cost estimates examined were not supported or complete.
                            DOE itself acknowledged in its February 2002 review of the cleanup



                            17
                              U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Waste: DOE’s Accelerated Cleanup
                            Strategy Has Benefits but Faces Uncertainties, GAO/RCED-99-129 (Washington, D.C.:
                            Apr. 30, 1999).




                            Page 20                                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                             program that baseline cost estimates do not provide a reliable picture of
                             project costs.18

                             The National Research Council, which has conducted research on DOE’s
                             project management, has reported on why DOE’s baseline cost estimates
                             are often unreliable. It noted in 1999 that DOE often sets project baselines
                             too early and that industry practice calls for completing from 30 percent to
                             35 percent of a design before establishing a baseline cost estimate.19 In a
                             recent example, we found that the estimated contract price of Hanford’s
                             high-level waste treatment facility is expected to increase to $5.8 billion,
                             about $1.6 billion above the original $4.2 billion contract price established
                             in December 2000. The original cost estimate was established when less
                             than 15 percent of the facility design was complete. The cost increase is
                             due to such factors as adding contingency funds for unforeseen
                             occurrences and making some facility modifications not in the
                             original contract.

Accelerated Cost Estimates   A second reason for concern about the cost-savings estimates is that
May Be Incomplete            some of the savings may be based on incomplete estimates of the costs
                             for the accelerated proposals. According to the Office of Management and
                             Budget’s (OMB) guidance on developing cost estimates, agencies should
                             ensure that all appropriate costs are addressed in the estimate. However,
                             for example, the Idaho National Laboratory estimates savings of up to
                             $7 billion, in large part, by eliminating the need to build a vitrification
                             facility to process waste currently in calcine form and in tanks, as well as
                             achieving associated reductions in operations and decommissioning costs.
                             The waste, as is, may have to undergo an alternative treatment method
                             before it can be accepted at a geological repository. The Idaho National
                             Laboratory plans to use one of four different technologies currently
                             being evaluated to treat its tank waste. DOE’s savings estimate reflects
                             the potential cost of only one of those technologies. DOE has not yet
                             developed the costs of using any of the other waste treatment approaches.
                             DOE noted that the accelerated lifecycle estimate could likely change as
                             one of the technologies is selected and the associated costs of treating the
                             waste are developed.




                             18
                               U.S. Department of Energy, A Review of the Environmental Management Program
                             (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 4, 2002).
                             19
                              National Research Council, Improving Project Management in the Department of
                             Energy (Washington, D.C.: June 1999).




                             Page 21                                           GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Savings Estimates Do Not      A third area of concern is that DOE’s savings estimates generally do not
Reflect Timing, Uncertainty   accurately reflect the timing of when savings will occur, the uncertainty
or Nonbudgetary Impacts       associated with cost estimates or the reliability of a technology, or the
                              value of potential nonbudgetary impacts of the alternative strategies.
                              According to OMB guidance, agencies should ensure that the timing of
                              when the savings will occur is accounted for, that uncertainties are
                              recognized and quantified where possible, and that nonbudgetary impacts,
                              such as a change in the level of risk to workers, are quantified, or at least
                              described. Regarding the time value of money, applying OMB guidance
                              would mean that estimates of savings in DOE’s accelerated plans should
                              reflect a comparison of its baseline cost estimate with the alternative,
                              expressed in a “present value,” where the dollars are discounted to a
                              common year to reflect the time value of money. Instead, DOE’s
                              savings estimates generally measure savings by comparing dollars in
                              different years. For example, the Savannah River Site estimates a savings
                              of nearly $5.4 billion by reducing by 8 years (from 2027 to 2019) the time
                              required to process its high-level waste. Adjusting the savings estimate to
                              present value in 2003 results in a savings of $2.8 billion in 2003 dollars.

                              Regarding uncertainties, in contrast to OMB guidance, the DOE savings
                              estimates generally do not consider uncertainties. For example, the
                              savings projected in the Idaho National Laboratory’s accelerated plan
                              reflect the proposal to no longer build the vitrification facility and an
                              associated reduction in operations costs. However, the savings do not
                              account for uncertainties, such as whether alternatives to vitrification
                              will succeed and at what cost. Rather than reflecting uncertainties by
                              providing a range of savings, DOE’s savings estimate is a single point
                              estimate of $7 billion.

                              Regarding nonbudgetary impacts, DOE’s savings estimates generally
                              did not fully assess the value of potential nonbudgetary impacts, such
                              as a change in the level of risk to workers or potential effects on the
                              environment. OMB guidelines recommend identification and, where
                              possible, quantification of other expected benefits and costs to society
                              when evaluating alternative plans. An example where nonbudgetary
                              impacts were partially, but not fully, considered is the Idaho National
                              Laboratory. The Idaho National Laboratory’s accelerated plan notes that
                              its proposal not to vitrify its calcined high-level waste significantly reduces
                              risk to workers and the environment by eliminating the exposure that
                              would have been incurred in cleaning up and decommissioning the
                              vitrification facility once waste treatment had been completed. While site
                              officials told us such analyses are currently underway, the impact has not
                              yet been reflected in the savings estimate. However, the proposal does not


                              Page 22                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                             assess potential increases in environmental risk, if any, from disposing of
                             the waste without stabilizing it into a vitrified form. By not assessing these
                             benefits and risks to workers and the environment, DOE leaves unclear
                             how important these risks and trade-offs are to choosing an alternative
                             treatment approach.


                             DOE faces significant legal and technical challenges to achieving the
Key Legal and                cost and schedule reductions proposed in its new initiative. On the
Technical Challenges         legal side, DOE’s proposals depend heavily on the agency’s authority to
                             apply a designation other than “high-level waste” to the low-activity
Could Limit Potential        portion of the waste stream, so that this low-activity portion does not
Savings from                 have to be disposed of as high-level waste. DOE’s authority to make such
                             determinations is being challenged in court. On the technical side, DOE’s
DOE’s Accelerated            proposals rest heavily on the successful application of waste separation
Cleanup Initiative           methods that are still under development and will not be fully tested
                             before being put in place. DOE’s track record in this regard has not been
                             strong; it has had to abandon past projects that were also based on
                             promising—but not fully tested—technologies. Either or both of these
                             challenges could limit the potential savings from DOE’s accelerated
                             cleanup initiative.


DOE’s Initiative Relies      DOE is involved in a lawsuit over whether it has the authority to manage
Heavily on Authority         some tank wastes containing lower concentrations of radioactivity as
That Is Being Challenged     other than high-level waste. The outcome could affect DOE’s ability to
                             move forward with waste treatment on an accelerated schedule. If DOE
in Court                     retains its ability to manage much of the waste as other than high-level
                             waste, it can apply less expensive treatment methods to that portion of
                             the waste, dispose of the waste on-site, and close the tanks more quickly.
                             If DOE loses the legal challenge, these faster and less expensive treatment
                             alternatives may not be available. Regardless of the outcome, if an
                             extended legal process ensues, DOE may be prevented from realizing the
                             full potential savings associated with its accelerated cleanup initiative.

DOE’s Authority and          DOE has traditionally managed all of the wastes in its tanks as high-level
Procedures for Designating   waste because the waste resulted primarily from the reprocessing of spent
Waste as “Incidental”        nuclear fuel and contains significant amounts of radioactivity. However,
                             DOE based its approach to treatment and disposal on the radioactivity
                             and actual constituents in the waste, as well as the source of the waste.
                             Focusing on the radioactivity and constituents would allow DOE to use
                             less costly and less complicated treatment approaches for the majority of
                             what is now managed as high-level waste.


                             Page 23                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                              DOE has developed a process for deciding when waste in the tanks should
                              not be considered high-level waste. In July1999, DOE issued Order 435.1
                              setting forth procedures for the management of its radioactive wastes.
                              Under this order, DOE formalized its process for determining which waste
                              is incidental to reprocessing (“incidental waste”), not high level waste,
                              and therefore will not be sent to a geological repository for high-level
                              waste disposal. This process provides a basis for DOE to treat and
                              dispose of some portion of its wastes less expensively as low-level or
                              transuranic wastes.

                              DOE’s Order 435.1 establishes the specific criteria for defining the waste
                              that could be considered incidental to reprocessing and therefore is not
                              high-level waste and would not require the vitrification treatment that
                              high-level waste must undergo for disposal purposes. The criteria were
                              developed in conjunction with the NRC, the governmental entity with
                              regulatory authority over disposal facilities for high-level waste. The
                              criteria generally are that the waste (1) has been or will be processed to
                              remove key radioactive components to the maximum extent technically
                              and economically practical; (2) will be disposed of in conformance
                              with the safety requirements for low-activity waste as laid out in NRC
                              regulations; and (3) will be put in a solid physical form and will not exceed
                              radioactivity levels set by the NRC for the most radioactive category of
                              low-level waste, referred to as “Class C standard.”20 DOE must first satisfy
                              itself internally that these requirements have been met for waste it wants
                              to determine is waste incidental to reprocessing and therefore not
                              high-level waste. DOE then obtains a technical review of its determination
                              from the NRC, which provides a concurrence that DOE has met its
                              criteria.21 DOE then considers the waste not to be high-level waste, but
                              waste that can be managed as either low-level or transuranic waste.

Designation as “Incidental”   DOE’s ability to define some waste as incidental to reprocessing, and to
Would Apply to Much of        then follow a different set of treatment and disposal requirements for that
the Waste                     waste, is central to its overall strategy for addressing its tank waste. For


                              20
                                As required by NRC regulations (10 C.F.R. 61.55), Class C low-level waste must not only
                              meet the most rigorous requirements for low-level waste form to ensure stability, but also
                              must meet additional requirements at the disposal site to protect against inadvertent
                              intrusion. The criteria also allow DOE to authorize and use alternative requirements for
                              radioactive concentration limits.
                              21
                                Although DOE is not required to gain NRC’s concurrence with its incidental waste
                              determinations, it does so to obtain an independent assessment of its evaluation of waste
                              as incidental to reprocessing.




                              Page 24                                                GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
example, DOE plans to use its incidental waste process to manage about
90 percent of its 54 million gallons of tank waste at Hanford as low-level
waste, rather than process it through a high-level waste vitrification
facility. Using that approach, most of the waste would be eligible for
treatment and disposal on-site. Such an approach would be less expensive
than treating all of the waste as high-level waste and sending it for disposal
in a high-level waste geologic repository. DOE has no current estimate
of the cost increase if all 94 million gallons of tank wastes had to be
treated in a high-level waste vitrification facility and stored at a geological
repository. However, a 1996 environmental impact statement at the
Hanford Site estimated such an alternative for the Hanford Site alone
would add about $29 billion to $37 billion (in 1995 dollars), nearly doubling
project costs at that site alone, primarily due to increased disposal costs at
the repository. Furthermore, there would probably not be enough space at
the high-level waste repository to dispose of all of this waste.

Hanford is not the only site affected; as of April 2003, DOE had developed
incidental waste determinations for waste at all four of its high-level waste
sites.22 In all, DOE had used its authority to designate some of its tank
waste as low-level or transuranic waste in seven separate incidental waste
determinations (see table 5). Although two of these determinations were
approved prior to the issuance of Order 435.1, DOE essentially followed
the same criteria found in the subsequent order. DOE is planning to
initiate further incidental waste determinations as it removes the waste
from additional tanks.




22
  Because West Valley separated out and treated its waste before the waste incidental to
reprocessing criteria were formalized in Order 435.1 in 1999, DOE followed criteria
established in the NRC requirements for low-level waste (10 C.F.R. 61.55). We did not
include this action in table 5.




Page 25                                               GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Table 5: Description and Status of DOE Incidental Waste Determinations for Tank Waste

                     Waste included in
                     incidental waste                Incidental waste to      Estimated volume of
 Site                determination                   be managed as            incidental waste          Status
 Hanford             Those tank wastes to            Low-level waste.         Approximately             DOE approved this
                     be separated from                                        90 percent of Hanford’s   determination prior to issuing
                     high-activity wastes                                     54 million gallon waste   its Order 435.1, although
                     through using separations                                inventory.                DOE essentially followed the
                     processes.                                                                         same criteria found in 435.1.
                                                                                                        The NRC agreed but said
                                                                                                        that if DOE decides to treat
                                                                                                        some of its low-activity waste
                                                                                                        with technologies other than
                                                                                                        vitrification, as it plans under
                                                                                                        its accelerated initiative,
                                                                                                        DOE may need to update
                                                                                                        its determination.
 Savannah River      Residual tank waste left in Low-level waste.             Approximately             DOE approved this
                     tanks 17 and 20 at closure.                              3500 gallons of           determination prior to issuing
                                                                              residual waste left in    its Order 435.1, although
                                                                              the two tanks.            DOE essentially followed the
                                                                                                        same criteria found in 435.1.
 Savannah River      Saltwaste to be treated         Low-level waste.         Up to 12.3 million        DOE approved the
                     through the grout                                        gallons of tank waste.    determination, but has not
                     (Saltstone) facility.                                                              implemented it pending
                                                                                                        resolution of a lawsuit and
                                                                                                        other issues.
 Savannah River      Residual tank waste left in     Low-level waste.         12,000 to 13,000 gallons Awaiting DOE approval.
                     tank 19 at closure.                                      of solids in tank 19
                                                                              at closure.
 Idaho National      Sodium-bearing waste         Transuranic waste           900,000 gallons of acidic Awaiting DOE approval.
 Laboratory          in tanks.                    (to be disposed of at       liquid in tanks.
                                                  an off-site transuranic
                                                  repository).
 Idaho National      Residual waste left in tanks Low-level waste.            Actual amount of             Awaiting NRC concurrence
 Laboratory          at closure.                                              residuals left in the        and DOE approval.
                                                                              tank will be determined
                                                                              at time of individual
                                                                              tank closure.
 West Valley         Sodium-bearing waste            Low-level waste.         12,000 gallons.              DOE approved this
                     originally in tanks.                                                                  determination.
Source: DOE.

                                           Note: DOE has incidental waste determinations that apply to items other than tank waste, such as
                                           equipment and materials used in managing high-level waste, including contaminated transfer pumps
                                           and job wastes. We did not include those determinations in this table.




                                           Page 26                                                   GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Legal Challenges to DOE’s   DOE is currently involved in a lawsuit focused on its authority to make
Authority to Manage Its     incidental waste determinations. In March 2002, the Natural Resources
Tank Waste                  Defense Council and others filed a lawsuit challenging DOE’s authority
                            to manage its wastes through its incidental waste process.23 A primary
                            concern of the plaintiffs is that DOE will use its incidental waste process
                            to permanently leave intensely radioactive waste sediments in the tanks
                            with only minimal treatment. The lawsuit alleges that DOE’s incidental
                            waste process improperly allows DOE to reclassify high-level waste as
                            incidental waste that does not need to be treated in the same way as
                            high-level waste. According to the plaintiffs, the Nuclear Waste Policy
                            Act defines all waste originating from a given source—that is, from
                            reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel—as high-level waste and requires
                            that such waste be managed as high-level waste, yet DOE has chosen to
                            differentiate its wastes according to the level of radioactivity and manage
                            them accordingly.

                            This is not the first legal action that resulted from DOE’s process for
                            determining which part of its waste can be designated as incidental to
                            reprocessing and will not be managed as high-level waste. For example,
                            in 1993, the NRC denied a formal petition from the states of Washington
                            and Oregon requesting that NRC establish the process and criteria for
                            determining what part of DOE’s radioactive waste could be managed as
                            other than high-level waste.24 The states’ request stemmed from concerns
                            that the criteria DOE was applying to wastes had not been formally
                            established by regulation and thus had not been given public scrutiny.
                            The NRC, in its ruling, concluded that DOE’s process for determining
                            what waste was incidental to reprocessing was appropriate for making
                            individual tank-by-tank incidental waste determinations, and that the NRC
                            had no jurisdiction. Later, in 1998, the Natural Resources Defense Council
                            petitioned the NRC to assume immediate licensing authority over the
                            51 tanks at the Savannah River Site, arguing that DOE invented the term
                            “incidental waste” as a means of circumventing NRC’s authority and
                            oversight and, furthermore, that waste to be left in the bottom of the tanks
                            at Savannah River did not meet DOE’s own definition of incidental waste.


                            23
                              Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc. v. Abraham, No. 01-CV-413 (D. Idaho, filed
                            Mar. 5, 2002). The lawsuit was originally filed in January 2000 in the 9th Circuit Court of
                            Appeals and was subsequently transferred to the federal district court in Idaho. The other
                            parties to the lawsuit are the Snake River Alliance, the Confederated Tribes and Bands
                            of the Yakama Nation, and the Shoshone Bannock Tribes. In addition, the states of
                            Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and South Carolina are participating as amicus curiae.
                            24
                                 58 Fed. Reg. 12,342 (1993).




                            Page 27                                                 GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                               The NRC concluded it did not have regulatory authority over high-level or
                               residual wastes at Savannah River.25

Uncertainty about DOE’s        The current legal challenge, as well as any future challenges, could
Authority Could Delay          affect DOE’s efforts to implement its accelerated treatment and disposal
Implementing New Initiatives   strategies. For example, the challenge could place on hold indefinitely all
                               pending incidental waste determinations. Since the start of the lawsuit,
                               DOE has not implemented any incidental waste determinations and has
                               not yet decided whether to defer or move forward with its pending
                               incidental waste determinations—such as for closing tanks. DOE is
                               concerned that moving forward to implement such determinations could
                               create a risk that the court could place a general ban on making any
                               decisions about the waste until the legal challenge is resolved. In addition,
                               final resolution of the challenge could be further delayed if either party
                               appeals the decision.

                               A lengthy legal process could result in delays in moving forward
                               with treatment plans for this waste and delays in closing tanks on an
                               accelerated schedule. For example, the Idaho National Laboratory plans
                               to begin closing tanks in the spring of 2003, but approval for the incidental
                               waste determination to close the tanks by managing tank waste residuals
                               as low-level waste is still pending.26 A DOE official at the Idaho National
                               Laboratory told us that while a delay of several months in obtaining
                               incidental waste approval would not present an immediate threat to
                               schedule dates, a delay beyond 24 months would seriously impact the
                               site’s ability to meet its accelerated 2012 date to close all of the tanks.
                               Savannah River also plans to begin closing additional tanks starting in
                               early 2004.27 A DOE official at the Savannah River Site said that if the
                               lawsuit continues, the site may miss a legally binding date agreed to with
                               regulators to begin closing the tanks.

                               If the court invalidated DOE’s incidental waste determination process,
                               DOE may need to find an alternative solution for treating and managing
                               its wastes that would allow it to treat waste with lower concentrations of
                               radioactivity less expensively. In that case, DOE could begin experiencing



                               25
                                    65 Fed. Reg. 62,377 (2000).
                               26
                                Tank closure at the Idaho National Laboratory is also pending completion of its National
                               Environmental Policy Act process.
                               27
                                    The Savannah River Site closed its first tanks—tanks 17 and 20—in 1997.




                               Page 28                                                 GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                         delays affecting progress at all three of the high-level waste sites that rely
                         on incidental waste determinations. For example, as one of its savings
                         strategies, DOE plans to manage about 12.3 million gallons of its waste
                         at Savannah River as low-level waste and treat this waste through a
                         grout facility. DOE estimates it could begin treating this waste as
                         early as August 2003. Although DOE has approved an incidental waste
                         determination for this waste, the grout treatment facility must receive an
                         operating permit from state regulators. To date, the state has withheld
                         approval for the permit, pending resolution of the lawsuit. A site official
                         said without the permit, DOE cannot go forward with its plans to
                         accelerate treatment of the waste.

                         At this point, the department does not appear to have a strategy in
                         place to avoid the potential effects of challenges to its incidental waste
                         determination authority, either from the current lawsuit or future
                         challenges. In a December 2002 internal memorandum, the Assistant
                         Secretary for Environmental Management issued guidelines for proceeding
                         with making incidental waste determinations as necessary to meet cleanup
                         commitments and requirements. However, these guidelines only include
                         ensuring that such determinations meet the legal requirements of
                         Order 435.1; the guidelines do not include any alternative strategies
                         for dealing with the waste. DOE officials told us that they believe the
                         department will prevail in the legal challenge. Because the outcome of the
                         lawsuit is so uncertain, DOE believes it would be premature to explore
                         alternative strategies to overcome potentially significant delays to the
                         program that could result from a protracted legal conflict or from an
                         adverse decision. As of April 2003, DOE had just begun to look at potential
                         delays that could result from a lengthy legal challenge, but had developed
                         no formal strategy to deal with those delays. Such strategies could range
                         from exploring alternative approaches for establishing an incidental waste
                         regulation to asking that the Congress clarify its intentions regarding
                         DOE’s authority to implement an incidental waste policy.


Initiative Also Relies   DOE’s initiative also faces key technical challenges related to the process
Heavily on Waste         for separating the various components of the waste. Waste separation
Separation Approaches    involves a sequential process of filtering and extracting each major
                         high-level waste constituent, such as cesium-137 and strontium-90, from
That Will Not Be         the waste. DOE guidance recognizes the risks involved in implementing
Fully Tested             a technology without first thoroughly testing it. In order to save time,
                         however, DOE managers at the Hanford Site are planning some of their
                         strategies around waste separation technologies that will not be fully
                         tested before being implemented. Past projects that took this approach


                         Page 29                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                             have experienced major problems, and outside reviewers have raised
                             cautions about DOE’s plans to use the same approach in this instance.

Separating Waste Is Key to   Separating high-level waste into its various components is central to
Treating It Economically     DOE’s treatment and disposal plans. Since the 1980s, federal and state
                             agreements have reflected DOE’s plan that the waste be processed so that
                             at least 90 percent of the radioactivity in high-level waste is concentrated
                             into a much smaller waste stream and prepared for permanent isolation in
                             a geological repository. The low-activity waste portion, which represents
                             the majority of the waste volume but significantly less radioactivity, must
                             also be immobilized according to federal and state agreements.

                             Separating the waste components is important not only to comply with
                             federal and state agreements, but also to meet waste cleanup schedule
                             and cost goals. If the waste is not separated, all of it—about 94 million
                             gallons—may have to be treated as high-level waste and disposed of in the
                             geological repository. Doing so would require a much larger repository
                             than currently planned and drive up disposal costs by billions of dollars.
                             Successful separation will substantially reduce the volume of waste
                             needing disposal at the repository, as well as the time and cost required to
                             prepare it for disposal, and allow less expensive methods to be used in
                             treating and disposing of the remaining low-activity waste.

                             The waste separation process is complicated, difficult, and unique in
                             scope and size at each site. The waste differs among sites not only in
                             volume but also in the way it has been generated, managed, and stored
                             over the years.28 Although the main steps in the process may vary,
                             waste separation generally involves a sequential process of filtering and
                             extracting various high-level waste constituents from the tank waste
                             (see figure 4). The waste treatment approach at the Hanford Site involves
                             designing, building, and operating one-of-a-kind separations processes and
                             facilities. Developing a successful waste separations process has proved
                             challenging for DOE in the past, especially at Savannah River, and the
                             current plans for Hanford are no less challenging.




                             28
                               Progress in successfully separating the waste also varies at each site. Waste separation
                             operations at the West Valley site were completed in 1995. As part of its accelerated
                             cleanup plan, the Idaho National Laboratory is evaluating its need for separation
                             technologies for its liquid tank wastes. The subsequent discussion focuses on separation
                             processes at the Hanford and Savannah River sites.




                             Page 30                                                GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Figure 4: Simplified Description of Key Steps in Hanford’s Proposed Process for
Separating High-Level Waste Constituents




a
 Yttrium-90 and barium-137m, which are generated from strontium-90 and cesium-137 respectively,
are also present in the waste but additional steps to separate these constituents are not necessary
because after separation from their related constituents (strontium-90 and cesium-137), they will
decay within a few weeks until they are no longer radioactive.
b
 DOE’s original plan was to remove technetium-99 at the same time as cesium-137. However, DOE
officials at the Hanford Site now plan to leave technetium-99 in the low-activity waste stream rather
than separating and diverting it to the high-level waste stream where it would be vitrified.
c
 Both the high-level and low-activity waste streams contain various components of hazardous waste.
Some hazardous components will be destroyed during the vitrification process. DOE plans to apply to
the Environmental Protection Agency to have the remaining hazardous components declared safe for
long-term storage and disposal. If successful, the components will remain in the immobilized waste.




Page 31                                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Hanford Plans to Build       At its Hanford site, DOE intends to build a facility for separating the
Facilities to Separate       waste before fully testing the separation processes that will be used.
Waste before Fully Testing   The technology for separating waste components at Hanford is being
the Separation Processes     developed at several laboratories, including the Savannah River
to Be Used                   Technology Center. These facilities are performing tests to help validate
                             underlying assumptions about how the processes will work. The
                             laboratory testing includes a combination of pilot-scale testing of major
                             individual processes and use of operational data for certain of those
                             processes for which DOE officials said they had extensive experience.
                             However, integrated testing will not be completed until full-scale facilities
                             are constructed. DOE plans to fully test the processes for the first time
                             during the operational tests of the newly constructed facilities.

                             This approach does not fully reflect DOE guidance for incorporating new
                             or complex technology into a project, which calls for ensuring that the
                             technology is mature before integrating it into a project. More specifically,
                             DOE’s project management Order 413.3 requires DOE to assess the risks
                             associated with technology at various phases of a project’s development.
                             For projects with significant technical uncertainties that could affect cost
                             and schedule, corrective action plans are required to determine how the
                             uncertainties will be resolved before the projects can proceed. In addition
                             to this order, DOE has drafted supplementary project management
                             guidance. This guidance suggests that technologies are to be developed
                             to a reasonable level of maturity before a project can progress to full
                             implementation to reduce risks and avoid cost increases and schedule
                             delays. The guidance suggests that DOE avoid the risk of performing
                             concurrent facility design and technology development.

                             The laboratories working to develop Hanford’s waste separation process
                             have identified several technical uncertainties, which they are working to
                             address. These uncertainties or critical technology risks include problems
                             with separating waste solids through an elaborate filtration system,
                             problems associated with mixing the waste during separation processes,
                             and various problems associated with the low-activity waste evaporator.
                             The contractor is also concerned about the availability and performance
                             of a special resin for separating out cesium-137, a radioactive constituent.
                             The resin is currently produced by only one supplier, and that supplier
                             currently does not have the manufacturing capability to produce the
                             resin in the quantities needed for DOE’s full-scale operations, according
                             to contractor officials. In an effort to resolve this uncertainty,
                             DOE’s construction contractor has asked the manufacturer to
                             expand resin production capability, and in April 2003, DOE signed a



                             Page 32                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
    contract modification that allows alternative resins to be used in the
    separation process.

    Given these and other uncertainties, Hanford’s construction
    contractor and outside experts have seen Hanford’s approach as
    having high technical risk and have recommended integrated testing
    during project development.

•   In April 2002, concerned about the potential for operational problems
    with the waste separation processes, Hanford’s construction contractor
    proposed building an integrated testing facility to confirm that Hanford’s
    processes will work at a significantly larger scale than has been tested to
    date. The contractor proposed conducting fully integrated tests in a pilot
    facility using simulated waste before full-scale separation facilities are
    completed. The contractor estimated the cost of the pilot facility at
    between $6 million and $12 million.
•   In October 2002, an independent peer review group of industry experts
    concluded that an integrated pilot plant for interim testing to confirm the
    technical processes was a preferred approach. Several other independent
    experts we interviewed also shared this view. These experts are
    associated with the National Research Council and various research
    organizations, universities, and private institutions. These experts
    emphasized that performing integrated testing to verify that separation
    processes will work is an essential step, especially for treating Hanford’s
    unique waste in the complicated waste treatment facilities that Hanford
    is building.

    In contrast to these views, DOE’s Office of River Protection and the
    construction contractor decided not to construct an integrated pilot
    facility and instead to accept a higher-risk approach. DOE officials said
    they wanted to avoid increasing project costs and schedule delays, which
    they believe will result from building a testing facility. Instead, Hanford
    officials said that they will continue to conduct pilot-scale tests of major
    separation processes. DOE officials said they believe this testing will
    provide assurance that the separation processes will function in an
    integrated manner. After the full-scale treatment facilities are constructed,
    DOE plans to fully test and demonstrate the separation process during
    facility startup operations.

    Full testing of Hanford’s separation process may be a bigger challenge
    than originally envisioned. In April 2003, DOE modified the construction
    contract for the waste treatment facilities and adopted a schedule
    compressing the facility testing and startup period from 4 years to about



    Page 33                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                              2.5 years. To meet this compressed schedule, Hanford’s construction
                              contractor decided in late April 2003 to drop its proposal for the pilot
                              plant. Instead, the contractor plans to continue laboratory testing of
                              separation processes in an effort to simulate the results of an integrated
                              pilot plant. While contractor officials stated that their original proposal
                              for an integrated pilot plant was technically sound, they withdrew the
                              proposal in order to ensure that they could meet revised contract schedule
                              and budget commitments.

Past Experience at Savannah   The consequences of not adhering to sound technology development
River Shows Consequences of   guidelines can be severe. At the Savannah River Site, for example,
Deviating from Technology     DOE invested nearly $500 million over nearly 15 years to develop a waste
Development Guidelines        separations process, called in-tank precipitation, to treat Savannah River’s
                              high-level waste. While laboratory tests of this process were viewed as
                              successful, DOE did not conduct adequate testing of the components
                              until it started full-scale operations in the newly constructed facility. DOE
                              followed this approach, in part, because the technology was commercially
                              available. When DOE started full-scale operations, major problems
                              occurred. Benzene, a dangerously flammable byproduct, was produced in
                              large quantities. Operations were stopped after DOE spent about
                              $500 million because experts could not explain how or why benzene was
                              being produced and could not determine how to economically reconfigure
                              the facility to minimize it. Consequences of this technology failure
                              included significant cost increases, schedule delays, a full-scale facility
                              that did not work, and a less-than-optimum waste treatment operation
                              without a viable separation process. Savannah River is now taking steps to
                              develop and implement a new separation technology at an additional cost
                              of about $1.8 billion and a delay of about 7 years.29

                              Subsequent assessments of the problems that developed at Savannah
                              River found that DOE (1) relied on laboratory-scale tests to demonstrate
                              separation processes, (2) believed that technical problems could be
                              resolved later during facility construction and startup, and (3) decided to
                              scale up the technology from lab tests to full-scale without the benefit of
                              using additional testing facilities to confirm that processes would work at
                              a larger scale. Officials at Hanford are following this same approach.
                              Several experts with whom we talked cautioned that if separation



                              29
                               U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Waste: Process to Remove Radioactive
                              Waste From Savannah River Tanks Fails to Work, GAO/RCED-99-69 (Washington, D.C.:
                              Apr. 30, 1999).




                              Page 34                                          GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                        processes at Hanford do not work as planned, facilities will have to be
                        retrofitted, and potential cost increases and schedule delays can be much
                        greater than those associated with integrated process testing in a
                        pilot facility.


                        In addition to the potential cost savings identified in the accelerated
Opportunities Exist     site cleanup plans, DOE continues to develop and evaluate additional
to Explore Additional   proposals to reduce costs, but is still in the process of fully assessing these
                        proposals. Because DOE is still evaluating these proposals, the potential
Cost Savings and        cost savings have not been fully developed, but could be in the range of
to Strengthen           several billion dollars, if successfully implemented. At the Savannah River
                        and Hanford sites, for example, DOE is identifying ways to increase the
Program Management      amount of waste that can be placed in its high-level waste canisters to
                        reduce treatment and disposal costs. DOE also has a number of initiatives
                        under way to improve overall program management. However, we are
                        concerned that they may not be adequate. In our examinations of
                        problems that have plagued DOE’s project management over the years,
                        three contributing factors often emerged—making key project decisions
                        without rigorous analysis, incorporating new technology before it has
                        received sufficient testing, and using a “fast-track” approach (concurrent
                        design and construction) on complex projects. Ensuring that these
                        weaknesses are addressed as part of its program management initiatives
                        would further improve the management of the program and increase the
                        chances for success.


DOE Is Considering      DOE is continuing to identify other proposals for reducing costs under
Additional Potential    its accelerated cleanup initiative. Senior Environmental Management
Opportunities to        officials realize that the proposals to accelerate cleanup identified in
                        site performance management plans do not represent a complete set of
Reduce Costs            options for full achievement of DOE’s savings goals. To pursue additional
                        potential opportunities, the Assistant Secretary for Environmental
                        Management commissioned several special project teams to evaluate
                        additional program improvements and cost-savings opportunities. One
                        of these teams, the high-level waste project team, has completed the
                        initial phase of its work. According to DOE’s high-level waste project team
                        leader, it may be some time before their proposals are fully assessed and
                        decisions are made about how best to proceed. The Assistant Secretary
                        will consider the proposals from the project teams, but has not stated
                        when final decisions will occur.




                        Page 35                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                                Among the proposals that DOE is considering, the ones that appear to
                                offer significant cost-savings opportunities would increase the amount
                                of waste placed in each disposal canister. We discussed these cost-savings
                                opportunities with both Savannah River and Hanford officials during our
                                review. DOE officials at those sites have identified these potential savings
                                opportunities as deserving further consideration, but have not yet fully
                                assessed the potential benefits, or overcome technical and operational
                                barriers.

Opportunities at Savannah       Savannah River officials are working to reduce costs by increasing the
River Look Promising but Have   amount of waste immobilized in glass and placed in each disposal canister.
Not Been Fully Demonstrated     They have proposed increasing the amount of waste in each canister by
                                developing different blends of glass material, called frit, that they believe
                                can be tailored to each batch of waste. The amount of waste that can be
                                placed into a canister depends on a complex set of factors, including the
                                specific mix of radioactive material combined with other chemicals in
                                the waste, such as chromium and sulfate, that affect the processing and
                                quality of the immobilized product. These factors affect the percentage
                                of waste than can be placed in each canister because they indicate the
                                likelihood that radioactive constituents could leach out of the
                                immobilizing glass medium and into the environment. The greater the
                                potential for leaching, the lower the allowable percentage of waste and the
                                higher the percentage of glass frit that must be used. DOE determines that
                                a consistently acceptable glass is produced by evaluating the leaching
                                rates of the glass, using a combination of chemical analysis and
                                predictive modeling.

                                Based on a recent improvement made to DOE’s predictive model involving
                                adjustments to the required temperature of the melted waste, and changes
                                to the type of glass frit used, Savannah River officials believe they can
                                increase the amount of waste loaded in each canister from 28 percent to
                                about 35 percent and, for at least one waste batch, to nearly 50 percent.
                                Savannah River plans to implement this new process and begin
                                increasing the amount of waste in each canister in June 2003. If successful,
                                Savannah River’s improved approach could reduce the number of
                                canisters needed by about 1,000 canisters and save about $2.7 billion,
                                based on preliminary estimates.

                                Beyond the specific improvements Savannah River officials have already
                                identified, there may be an additional way to increase the loading of waste
                                into disposal canisters, resulting in additional savings for DOE. During our
                                review, we determined that DOE’s Offices of Environmental Management
                                and Civilian Radioactive Waste Management (Radioactive Waste


                                Page 36                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                           Management) have been using different acceptance criteria for evaluating
                           the rate at which waste could leach out of the glass in the disposal
                           canisters. By conforming to the less restrictive Radioactive Waste
                           Management criteria, Environmental Management could possibly increase
                           the amount of waste in the canisters to a higher level.30 After examining
                           this possibility, Environmental Management officials at Savannah River
                           said that, if the higher waste loading could be achieved, this change could
                           eliminate the need for up to 650 canisters. This may permit further cost
                           savings of about $1.7 billion. The Savannah River officials stated that they
                           were continuing to examine this cost-savings possibility.

Because Opportunities at   The Hanford Site has also proposed strategies to decrease the number of
Hanford Are in Early       high-level waste canisters that it will need, but its approach is in a very
Development, Savings Are   early stage of development. In November 2002, Hanford proposed
Not Yet Known              broadening the high-level waste acceptance criteria to allow waste forms
                           other than standard borosilicate glass—the type of glass being used at
                           Savannah River and initially planned for Hanford—to be accepted for
                           immobilizing high-level waste. Hanford’s proposal is based on recent
                           changes to NRC’s disposal requirements that will allow for alternative
                           waste forms to be sent to the repository.31 These changes may allow
                           Hanford to package its high-level waste in fewer canisters.

                           Although it is unclear whether DOE orders will be changed to allow these
                           other waste forms, DOE has significant incentives to do so. Reducing the
                           number of canisters at Hanford is especially important because, based
                           on the expected production capacity of the high-level waste vitrification
                           plant, only a maximum of 9,600 of the projected 12,800 canisters that DOE
                           will need can be filled with waste by the 2028 scheduled completion date.


                           30
                             DOE’s standard for leaching establishes a limitation on the rate at which the glass
                           containing the waste can leach material into the environment. Radioactive Waste
                           Management, the DOE office responsible for managing the final disposal of the waste at
                           the geologic repository, requires that the “mean” or average of leaching rates measured or
                           predicted for the immobilizing glass must be less than the average of leaching rates for
                           standard glass. In contrast, Environmental Management suggests (and the sites have
                           adopted) that the average of leaching rates measured or predicted for the glass must be
                           “at least two standard deviations below” the average leaching rates for standard glass.
                           Environmental Management’s more stringent criteria to limit leaching can, under some
                           circumstances, restrict the amount of waste that can be placed in the canisters to a greater
                           extent than Radioactive Waste Management’s standard.
                           31
                             In a November 2002 internal memo to Radioactive Waste Management, the Assistant
                           Secretary for Environmental Management stated the need to revise its waste acceptance
                           criteria to be consistent with NRC’s disposal requirements. DOE has recently begun to
                           evaluate the steps necessary to make this revision.




                           Page 37                                                GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                        However, by using other types of glass, Hanford estimates that it may be
                        able to reduce its need for disposal canisters by 2,500 to 3,900 canisters.32
                        If such a significant reduction in the number of canisters produced is
                        possible, it could shorten Hanford’s high-level waste treatment schedule
                        by 6 years, save billions of dollars, and help to meet its scheduled
                        completion date. However, the wide range of Hanford’s estimate reflects
                        the rough nature of its proposal and that cost savings have not yet been
                        fully estimated.


DOE Has Opportunities   In addition to DOE’s efforts to identify site-specific proposals for saving
to Improve Management   time and money, DOE is also undertaking management improvements
of the Program by       using teams to study individual issues. Nine teams are currently in place,
                        while other teams to address issues such as using breakthrough business
Addressing Previously   processes in waste cleanup and improving the environmental review
Identified Weaknesses   process to better support decision-making have not yet been formed. Each
                        team has a disciplined management process to follow,33 and even after the
                        teams’ work is completed, any implementation will take time. These
                        efforts are in the early stages, and therefore it is unclear if they will be
                        effective in correcting the causes of the performance problems DOE and
                        others have identified.

                        We are concerned, however, that these management reforms may not go
                        far enough in addressing performance problems with the high-level waste
                        program. Our concerns stem from our review of initiatives underway in
                        the management teams, our discussions with DOE officials, and our past
                        and current work, as well as work by others inside and outside DOE. We
                        have identified three recurring weaknesses in DOE’s management of
                        cleanup projects that we believe need to be addressed as part of this
                        overall review. These weaknesses cut across the various issues that the
                        teams are working on and are often found at the center of problems that
                        have been identified. Two of the three weaknesses have been discussed
                        earlier in this report, as we have identified these as potentially significant
                        obstacles to achieving savings—lack of rigor in the analysis supporting


                        32
                          Based on “engineering staff judgment,” depending on the waste form used, a reduction
                        of as many as 500 canisters may be attributable to changing Environmental Management’s
                        more stringent waste quality criteria to conform to Radioactive Waste Management’s
                        standard.
                        33
                         Under DOE’s project management principles, for example, teams must define project
                        requirements, conduct preliminary risk assessments, and prepare a risk mitigation plan
                        prior to developing a baseline cost estimate of proposed alternatives.




                        Page 38                                               GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                           key decisions, and incorporating technology into projects before it is
                           sufficiently mature. The final area of weakness involves using “fast-track”
                           methods to begin construction of complex facilities before sufficient
                           planning and design have taken place.

Key Decisions Not Always   DOE’s project management guidance emphasizes the importance of
Supported by Rigorous      rigorous and current analysis to support decision-making during the
Current Analysis           development of DOE projects. All DOE projects with costs greater than
                           $5 million require risk management activities, including a thorough
                           analysis, to be applied continuously, adjusting these analyses throughout
                           the process as necessary to ensure DOE is pursuing the best value
                           alternative at the lowest cost. Similarly, the Office of Management and
                           Budget guidance states that agencies should validate earlier planning
                           decisions with updated information before finalizing decisions to
                           construct facilities. This validation is particularly important where early
                           cost comparisons are susceptible to uncertainties and change.

                           However, DOE does not always follow this guidance. Proceeding without
                           rigorous review has been a recurring cause of many of the problems we
                           have identified in past DOE projects. For example, regarding the need to
                           validate planning decisions with updated information before finalizing
                           decisions, the decision at Hanford to construct a vitrification plant to
                           treat Hanford’s low-activity waste has not undergone such a validation.
                           Hanford’s analysis justifying the cost of this approach was prepared in
                           1999 and was based on technical performance data, disposal assumptions,
                           and cost data developed in the early to mid-1990s—conditions that are no
                           longer applicable. For example, the 1999 analysis compared DOE’s
                           low-activity vitrification approach with a disposal approach developed
                           in the early 1990s that involved large underground grout vaults with
                           elaborate environmental controls. Although this grout approach was
                           abandoned in 1994, DOE still used these disposal assumptions for the 1999
                           comparison and analysis. Since that time other conditions have changed,
                           including the performance capabilities of alternative technologies such as
                           grout, the relative costs of different technologies, and the amount of waste
                           DOE actually intends to process through a vitrification plant. These
                           changes suggest that earlier planning decisions need to be validated with
                           updated information to ensure that the current approach is reasonable and
                           appropriate. DOE’s high-level waste project team also recognized that the
                           DOE officials at Hanford had not performed a current, rigorous analysis
                           of low-activity waste treatment options including the use of grout as an
                           alternative to vitrification, and encouraged the Hanford site to update
                           its analysis based on current waste treatment and disposal assumptions.
                           Hanford officials responded in April 2003 by developing life-cycle


                           Page 39                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                            cost estimates that compared the cost of alternate low-activity waste
                            approaches. However, they did not fully reassess the decision to vitrify
                            low-activity waste. DOE officials at Hanford told us they do not plan to
                            reassess the decision to construct a low-activity vitrification facility
                            because their compliance agreement with the state of Washington calls for
                            vitrification of this waste. They also stated that vitrification is a technology
                            needed for destroying hazardous constituents in a portion of the waste.

                            In our previous work, we noted a similar lack of rigor in reevaluating DOE
                            decisions as conditions change. For example, at three sites—Fernald,
                            Ohio; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and the Idaho National Laboratory—DOE
                            was faced with a decision about whether to dispose of low-level waste
                            on-site or to use off-site commercial disposal facilities. Between the time
                            that DOE decided to develop on-site disposal facilities at these three sites
                            and the time that construction actually began, conditions changed that
                            affected the usefulness of earlier cost estimates. However, DOE officials
                            at the sites made little effort to update and reevaluate the original cost
                            comparisons to validate the on-site disposal decision.34 In July 2002, DOE’s
                            Office of Environmental Management issued guidance to implement our
                            recommendation to validate cost comparisons before constructing or
                            expanding low-level waste disposal facilities at these three sites.

                            This weakness cuts across the issues that the DOE teams are working on;
                            no DOE team appears to be currently addressing it. However, DOE
                            managers need to ensure that it receives proper consideration as these
                            management improvement efforts proceed.

New Technology Is           Our work on Department of Defense acquisitions has documented a set of
Incorporated before It Is   “best practices” used by industry for integrating new technology into
Sufficiently Mature         major projects. We reported in July 1999 that the maturity of a technology
                            at the start of a project is an important determinant of success.35 As
                            technology develops from preconceptual design through preliminary
                            design and testing, the maturity of the technology increases and the risks
                            associated with incorporating that design into a project decrease. Waiting



                            34
                             U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Cleanup: DOE Should Reevaluate Waste
                            Disposal Options Before Building New Facilities, GAO-01-441 (Washington, D.C.:
                            May 25, 2001).
                            35
                              U.S. General Accounting Office, Best Practices: Better Management of Technology
                            Development Can Improve Weapon System Outcomes, GAO/NSIAD-99-162
                            (Washington, D.C.: July 30, 1999).




                            Page 40                                             GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                               until technology is well-developed and tested before integrating it into a
                               project will greatly increase the chances of meeting cost, schedule, and
                               technical baselines. On the other hand, integrating technology that is
                               not fully mature into a project greatly increases the risk of having cost
                               increases and schedule delays. According to industry experts, correcting
                               problems after a project has begun can cost 10 times as much as resolving
                               technology problems beforehand.

                               DOE’s project management guidance issued in October 2000 is consistent
                               with these best practices. The guidance discusses technology development
                               and sets out suggested steps to ensure that new technology is brought
                               to a sufficient level of maturity at each decision point in a project. For
                               example, during the conceptual design phase of a project, “proof of
                               concept” testing should be performed before approval to proceed to the
                               preliminary design phase. Furthermore, the guidance states that projects
                               that attempt to concurrently develop the technology and design the facility
                               proceed with ill-defined risks to all three baselines—cost, schedule,
                               and technical.

                               Nevertheless, as we discussed earlier in this report, DOE sites continue
                               to integrate immature technologies into their projects. For example, at
                               Hanford, DOE is constructing a facility to separate high-level waste
                               components, although integrated testing of the many steps in the
                               separations process has not occurred and will not occur until after the
                               facility is completed. DOE, trying to keep the project on schedule and
                               within budget, has decided the risks associated with this approach are
                               acceptable. However, there are many projects in which this approach
                               created schedule delays and unexpected costs. The continued reliance on
                               this approach in the face of so many past problems is a signal of an area
                               that needs careful attention as DOE proceeds with its management reform
                               efforts. At present, no DOE management team is addressing this issue.

Facility Construction Starts   Finally, we have concerns about DOE’s practice of launching into
before Design Is               construction of complex, one-of-a-kind facilities well before their final
Sufficiently Developed         design is sufficiently developed, again in an effort to save time and
                               money. Both DOE guidance and external reviews stress the importance of
                               adequate upfront planning before beginning project construction. DOE’s
                               project management guidance identifies a series of well-defined steps
                               before construction begins and suggests that complex projects with
                               treatment processes that have never before been combined into a facility
                               do not lend themselves to being expedited. However, DOE guidance
                               does not explicitly prohibit a fast-track—or concurrent design and
                               construction—approach to complex, one-of-a-kind projects, and DOE


                               Page 41                                      GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
              often follows this approach. For example, at the Hanford Site, DOE is
              concurrently designing and constructing facilities for the largest, most
              complex environmental cleanup project in the United States. Problems
              are already surfacing. Only 24 months after the contract was awarded, the
              project was 10 months behind schedule dates, construction activities have
              outpaced design work causing inefficient work sequencing, and DOE has
              withheld performance fee from the design/construction contractor
              because of these problems.

              DOE experienced similar problems in concurrent design and construction
              activities on other waste treatment facilities. Both the spent nuclear fuel
              project at Hanford and the waste separations facility at the Savannah River
              Site encountered schedule delays and cost increases in part because the
              concurrent approach led to mistakes and rework, and required extra time
              and money to address the problems.36 In its 2001 follow-up report on DOE
              project management, the National Research Council noted that inadequate
              pre-construction planning and definition of project scope led to cost and
              schedule overruns on DOE’s cleanup projects.37 The Council reported that
              research studies suggest that inadequate project definition accounts for
              50 percent of the cost increases for environmental remediation projects.

              Again, no team is specifically examining the “fast-track” approach, yet
              it frequently contributed to past problems and DOE continues to use
              this approach.


              DOE’s efforts to improve its high-level waste cleanup program and to rein
Conclusions   in the uncontrolled growth in project costs and schedules are important
              and necessary. The accelerated cleanup initiative represents at least the
              hope of treating and disposing of the waste in a more economical and
              timely way, although the actual savings are unknown at this time.
              Furthermore, specific components of this initiative face key legal and
              technical challenges. Much of the potential for success rests on DOE’s


              36
                For a discussion of the problems associated with the fast track design/build approach
              on these projects, see U.S. General Accounting Office, Nuclear Waste: DOE’s Hanford
              Spent Nuclear Fuel Storage Project—Cost, Schedule, and Management Issues,
              GAO/RCED-99-267 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 20, 1999) and Nuclear Waste: Process to
              Remove Radioactive Waste From Savannah River Tanks Fails to Work, GAO-RCED-99-69
              (Washington, D.C.: Apr. 30, 1999).
              37
               National Research Council, Progress in Improving Project Management at the
              Department of Energy (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 2001).




              Page 42                                             GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                      continued ability to dispose of large quantities of waste with relatively low
                      concentrations of radioactivity on-site by applying its incidental waste
                      process. DOE’s authority in this regard has been challenged in a lawsuit
                      that is still pending. Much of the success also rests on DOE’s ability to
                      obtain successful technical performance from its as-yet unproven waste
                      separation processes. Any technical problems with these processes will
                      likely result in costly delays. At DOE’s Hanford Site, we believe the
                      potential for such problems warrants reconsidering the need for more
                      thorough testing of the processes.

                      DOE’s accelerated cleanup initiative should mark the beginning, not
                      the end, of DOE’s efforts to identify other opportunities to improve the
                      program by accomplishing the work more quickly, more effectively, or at
                      less cost. As DOE continues to pursue other management improvements,
                      it should reassess certain aspects of its current management approach,
                      including the quality of the analysis underlying key decisions, the
                      adequacy of its approach to incorporating new technologies into projects,
                      and the merits of a fast-track approach to designing and building complex
                      nuclear facilities. Although the challenges are great, the opportunities for
                      program improvements are even greater. Therefore, DOE must continue
                      its efforts to clean up its high-level waste while demonstrating tangible,
                      measurable program improvements.


                      To help ensure that DOE’s accelerated cleanup initiative is effective and
Recommendations for   that cleanup of high-level waste proceeds in a timely and cost-effective
Executive Action      manner, we recommend that the Secretary of the Department of Energy

                  •   seek clarification from the Congress regarding DOE’s authority for
                      designating waste as incidental to reprocessing if the current challenge
                      becomes an extended legal process, in order to help DOE determine
                      what strategy it needs to move its initiative forward and realize
                      potential savings;
                  •   reassess the potential risks, costs, and benefits of constructing an
                      integrated pilot-scale waste separation facility at the Hanford site to more
                      fully test separation technologies before completing construction of a
                      full-scale facility; and
                  •   ensure that DOE’s high-level waste projects (1) include a current and
                      rigorous analysis of the risks, costs, and benefits associated with the
                      decisions being implemented, in accordance with OMB guidance;
                      (2) incorporate new technologies consistent with best practices and
                      DOE guidance so that risks and costs are more effectively managed; and
                      (3) are carefully evaluated as to the appropriateness of using a fast-track



                      Page 43                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                  approach to designing and constructing complex nuclear facilities, and
                  that the potential risks and costs associated with this approach are
                  explicitly identified and considered.


                  We provided a draft of this report to the Department of Energy for its
Agency Comments   review and comment. DOE’s Assistant Secretary for Environmental
                  Management responded for DOE. DOE’s written comments acknowledged
                  the challenges that DOE faces in its high-level waste program, as discussed
                  in our report. DOE cited its recent initiative to accelerate cleanup and
                  reduce environmental risks as its response to those challenges. DOE
                  agreed to consider our recommendation to seek clarification from the
                  Congress regarding DOE’s authority to determine what waste is incidental
                  to reprocessing, if legal challenges to DOE’s authority to make such
                  determinations have a significant effect on implementing proposed
                  cost-saving and risk-reduction initiatives. However, DOE disagreed with
                  our recommendation that it conduct integrated pilot testing of its waste
                  separation processes at Hanford while constructing a full-scale facility. In
                  addition, regarding opportunities to improve program management, DOE
                  said that at the Hanford project it was already effectively conducting
                  rigorous analyses to support decision-making, incorporating new
                  technologies into the project consistent with best practices and agency
                  guidelines, and using a fast-track approach of concurrently designing and
                  building complex nuclear facilities.

                  Regarding our recommendation that DOE pursue integrated, pilot-scale
                  testing of the waste separations facility at Hanford, DOE believes that
                  its current approach is adequate to manage the risks associated with
                  designing and constructing the facility. DOE said that it does not intend to
                  pursue an integrated pilot test facility that we believe would increase the
                  chances of success with the full-scale facility. DOE’s position is based on
                  two main arguments. DOE believes that (1) the technologies planned for
                  the separations facility are commercially available and thus are mature
                  technologies having low technical risk and (2) relying on pilot testing of
                  individual components of the separation processes in the laboratory
                  provides adequate mitigation of the risks involved.

                  We disagree with DOE’s view that the separations approach planned for
                  the Hanford Site is low risk. DOE has experience with the individual
                  technologies, but does not have experience in operating an integrated
                  separations process that incorporates all of the operations required for
                  Hanford’s unique and complex waste. Furthermore, DOE has experienced
                  problems with another separation facility where adequate testing was not


                  Page 44                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
done until the facility was fully constructed—the in-tank precipitation
facility at Savannah River. In that case, the separations process failed
after DOE spent about $500 million trying to make it work properly.
And the primary technologies used at Savannah River were also in use
commercially, but had not been fully adapted to the unique Savannah
River wastes.

We also disagree that DOE’s plan to conduct extensive testing in the
laboratory to mitigate the technology risks involved with the separation
processes will provide adequate assurance that the full-scale separations
facility will perform effectively. Numerous experts and DOE’s contractor
have proposed constructing and operating an integrated pilot-scale facility.
They made the proposals while knowing about DOE’s intention to conduct
extensive laboratory testing of separation processes. The contractor as
well as outside experts view the separations facility as having significant
project risk, in contrast to DOE’s statement that the separation processes
pose low project risk. Given the risks associated with fully constructing
the separations facility before conducting integrated testing and the
cost of any delays associated with having significant problems with the
separation processes once the facility is fully constructed, we continue
to believe that conducting integrated pilot-scale testing is an important
risk- and schedule-management tool and that DOE should reconsider its
use for the Hanford project. DOE officials at Hanford acknowledged that
the pilot facility could be included in the project without extending the
project’s schedule.

Regarding management improvement issues, DOE said that we
inadequately portrayed the progress it has made in the three areas in
which we recommended management improvements. However, our report
addresses the three management issues from the broader context of DOE’s
project activities over several years and at a number of sites. Our past
work has clearly linked these weaknesses to problems on cleanup
projects. Because DOE did not take issue with that broader context in
this report, but did assert improved performance on the Hanford project,
the following comments are limited to needed improvements to the
Hanford project.

Regarding DOE’s view that it performed current and rigorous analyses
of risks, cost, and benefits for the Hanford waste treatment project, our
report illustrates our concerns about the analysis DOE performed to
support its decision to vitrify a portion of Hanford’s low-activity waste.
DOE stated that this decision, originally made in 1994, has been revisited
numerous times using rigorous analysis and provided us with three studies


Page 45                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
that specifically compared the cost of low-activity waste vitrification with
other approaches, such as grout, to support its decision. None of these
studies included a current and rigorous analysis of risks, costs, and
benefits, as called for in OMB guidance. For example, even the most
recent study, completed in 2003, was primarily based on technical
performance, disposal assumptions, and cost data developed in the early
1990s. The team leader of the high-level waste project team confirmed that
these analyses were not a full and rigorous assessment of the risks, cost,
and benefits of vitrifying low-activity waste. Thus, we continue to believe
that additional efforts are needed in this area.

Regarding our recommendation to follow best practices and DOE
guidance when incorporating new technology into cleanup projects, DOE
commented that it was continuing to consider opportunities to improve
the Hanford project and that the contractor was using a risk-based
management process to address technical and programmatic project
risks. We agree that a risk-based management process is appropriate on
the project. However, we continue to believe that DOE’s approach to
incorporating the separation technologies planned for the Hanford project
is not fully consistent with best practices and DOE guidance because the
approach involves incorporating technologies into the project before
they have been fully tested as an integrated process. This testing of the
integrated process in an operational mode is needed to demonstrate
that the technologies are sufficiently mature to ensure their effective
performance when deployed on the project.

Concerning the appropriateness of using a “fast-track” construction
approach to design and construct complex nuclear facilities for the
Hanford project, DOE said that our report incorrectly portrays the
overall strategy for the Hanford project. We believe our report accurately
describes DOE’s approach, which includes using concurrent design,
construction, and technology development. We have previously reported
on the risks associated with this approach, including the increased
potential for project schedule delays and cost increases.

DOE also provided technical clarifications and corrections to our report,
which we incorporated as appropriate. The full text of DOE’s comments
and our responses are presented in appendix II.


We conducted our review from July 2002 through May 2003, in accordance
with generally accepted government auditing standards. Appendix I
provides details on our scope and methodology.


Page 46                                      GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
As arranged with your office, unless you publicly announce its contents
earlier, we plan no further distribution of this report until 30 days after
the date of this letter. At that time, we will send copies to the Secretary
of Energy. We will also make copies available to others on request. In
addition, the report will be available at no charge on the GAO Web site at
http://www.gao.gov. If you or your staff have any questions on this report,
please call me at (202) 512-3841. Other staff contributing to this report are
listed in appendix III.

Sincerely yours,




Robin M. Nazzaro
Director, Natural Resources and Environment




Page 47                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
             Appendix I: Scope and Methodology
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology


             To describe the components of DOE’s high-level waste and the process
             involved in preparing the waste for permanent disposal, we analyzed
             information and documents provided by DOE officials and contractors at
             the four sites containing DOE high-level waste: Hanford, Washington;
             Idaho National Laboratory, Idaho; Savannah River, South Carolina; and
             West Valley, New York. We did not independently verify the accuracy of
             the information provided by each DOE site. From these same sites, we
             also obtained information on the types, age, and condition of the facilities
             used to store the high-level waste. To assist in evaluating technical aspects
             of high-level waste, we obtained assistance from our technical consultant,
             Dr. George Hinman. Dr. Hinman has a Doctor of Science degree in physics,
             is Professor Emeritus at the Washington State University, and has
             extensive experience in the nuclear energy field in industry, government,
             and academia.

             To examine DOE’s initiative for accelerating its high-level waste cleanup
             and the associated potential cost savings, we obtained and reviewed the
             Performance Management Plans for each of DOE’s four high-level waste
             sites (Hanford, Savannah River, Idaho National Laboratory, and West
             Valley). We discussed these initiatives thoroughly with officials from
             each of the sites and obtained documentation discussing the proposed
             initiatives, as well as savings estimates. We reported all dollar estimates
             as provided by DOE in current dollars and did not adjust these figures
             to constant dollars. We did not verify the accuracy of cost information
             provided by DOE. We also reviewed guidance from the Office of
             Management and Budget circulars, especially circular A-94, on the type
             of analysis that federal agencies should use when developing benefit and
             cost estimates, and compared DOE’s proposed savings estimates to that
             guidance. We analyzed savings estimate figures provided by DOE’s
             Savannah River staff, discounting the dollars to provide an estimate in
             constant dollars.

             To identify the legal challenges DOE faces, we obtained documentation
             relating to the current Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC)
             lawsuit. We discussed the lawsuit separately with attorneys from the
             NRDC, as well as from DOE. We also discussed the waste-incidental-to-
             reprocessing process with staff at the NRC. We documented each site’s
             incidental waste determinations, as well as historical information on the
             development of DOE Order 435.1. We also reviewed the appropriate
             statutes, related regulations and orders. To identify the technical
             challenges and issues that must be resolved to realize potential savings,
             we obtained documentation on the technical uncertainties and risks
             associated with the waste treatment approaches at the Hanford, Idaho


             Page 48                                       GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




National Laboratory, and Savannah River sites. Because waste separation
is central to successful high-level waste treatment and disposal, we
documented the status of each site’s approach. We identified the major
technical concerns, uncertainties, and risks associated with the waste
separations approaches and discussed them with DOE and contractor
officials at each site. We also visited the Savannah River Technology
Center to review the progress and results of laboratory tests conducted
to develop the Savannah River and Hanford sites’ waste separations
technology. With the assistance of our technical consultant, we contacted
a variety of independent experts in industry and academia to obtain their
views on the risks associated with these technologies.

To determine additional opportunities for reducing high-level waste
program costs, we reviewed DOE waste acceptance policies and
requirements, planning documents, position papers, and internal memos.
We discussed the opportunities with DOE officials, contractors, and
laboratory officials primarily at the Hanford, Idaho National Laboratory,
and Savannah River sites. We compared the cost-savings concepts with
those presented in performance management plans at each site to
document that they represented additional opportunities. We also relied
on the expertise of our technical consultant to help assess the technical
viability of DOE’s proposals. To determine opportunities to improve the
management of the program, we reviewed DOE’s Top-to-Bottom report
and we discussed management reform proposals with officials at DOE
headquarters. We also obtained documentation on DOE’s project review
teams. We reviewed prior reports from GAO, DOE’s IG and the National
Research Council to identify recurring weaknesses in DOE management
of its cleanup program, and we developed current examples of those
weaknesses from our work at the high-level waste sites and meetings
with DOE officials. We also compared management weaknesses we
identified to DOE’s current reform efforts to determine the extent to
which the weaknesses were being addressed and to identify areas needing
continued attention.

We conducted our review from July 2002 through May 2003 in accordance
with generally accepted government auditing standards.




Page 49                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                            Appendix II: Comments from the Department
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                            of Energy



of Energy


Note: GAO’s comments
supplementing those in
the report text appear at
the end of this appendix.




                            Page 50                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
of Energy




Page 51                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                 Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                 of Energy




See comment 1.




Now on p. 2.
See comment 2.




See comment 3.




                 Page 52                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                 Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                 of Energy




Now on p. 8.
See comment 4.


See comment 4.




Now on p. 14.
See comment 5.




Now on p. 15.
See comment 6.




Now on p. 18.
See comment 4.


Now on p. 19.
See comment 4.




                 Page 53                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                  Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                  of Energy




Now on p. 20.
See comment 7.




Now on p. 21.
See comment 8.




See comment 9.




See comment 10.




                  Page 54                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                  Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                  of Energy




See comment 11.




Now on p. 23.
See comment 12.




See comment 13.




See comment 4.




                  Page 55                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                  Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                  of Energy




See comment 4.




See comment 14.



Now on p. 30.
See comment 4.
Now on p. 32.
See comment 15.




                  Page 56                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                 Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                 of Energy




Now on p. 36.
See comment 4.


Now on p. 36.
See comment 4.




Now on p. 37.
See comment 4.




Now on p. 37.
See comment 4.




                 Page 57                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                  Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                  of Energy




Now on p. 39.
See comment 15.




Now on p. 40.
See comment 16.




                  Page 58                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                   Appendix II: Comments from the Department
                   of Energy




 Now on p. 41.
 See comment 15.




Now on p. 43.
See comment 15.




Now on p. 43.
See comment 15.




Now on p. 43.
See comment 15.




                   Page 59                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
of Energy




Page 60                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
of Energy




Page 61                                     GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
               Appendix II: Comments from the Department
               of Energy




               1. We agree and have modified the final report to clarify that the
GAO Comments      low-activity portion of the separated tank waste would be immobilized
                  and disposed of permanently on-site, or at other designated locations.

               2. We agree and have modified the final report to clarify that DOE’s
                  approach generally involves separating the waste into two main
                  streams.

               3. We modified the final report to clarify that the intentional discharges
                  from the tanks were only at the Hanford Site. We do not agree with
                  DOE’s statement that the tank wastes discharged into the soil
                  contained relatively low-levels of radioactivity. According to DOE’s
                  records, the tank waste discharged into the soil at the Hanford Site
                  contained radioactive components with long half-lives, such as
                  technetium-99. The available records show that, as of December 1989,
                  decades after the waste was discharged into the soil, the 121 million
                  gallons still contained more than 65,000 curies of radioactivity.

               4. We agree and have modified the final report accordingly.

               5. We believe that using the term “contaminated water” when referring to
                  water from the tanks that may include radioactive and hazardous
                  components is more accurate. The use of the term “water” by itself
                  could be misleading for the general reader.

               6. We agree and have modified the final report to clarify that the use of
                  process knowledge is a central part of the characterization step.

               7. Although DOE may use constant dollars to report the department’s
                  environmental liabilities under its Government Results and Reporting
                  Act requirements, it has not done so in its savings estimates or public
                  disclosures for its accelerated cleanup initiative. In addition, to
                  correctly compare costs of alternatives with different timing, DOE
                  should compare “present values” of costs and not merely the constant
                  dollars. Therefore, we made no change to the final report.

               8. We agree and have modified the final report to include the cost
                  contingency as a factor in the cost growth for the Hanford high-level
                  waste treatment facility.

               9. We believe that this comment reinforces the message in the
                  draft report that some of the proposed savings may be based on
                  incomplete estimates of the costs for the accelerated proposals. DOE
                  commented that the range of costs for the alternative technologies for
                  the sodium-bearing waste in the tanks—from $150-400 million—was


               Page 62                                      GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
Appendix II: Comments from the Department
of Energy




    less than the $1 billion estimated cost of vitrifying the waste, and
    therefore was not included in the savings estimate. We continue to
    believe that the savings estimates in the accelerated plan should have
    reflected all associated costs, including the difference between the
    costs for the alternative technologies and the costs for vitrification. We
    disagree that the $7 billion in estimated savings is solely attributable to
    the differences in strategy for treating calcine waste. The July 2002
    accelerated plan for the Idaho National Laboratory specifically states
    that the $7 billion will be saved by the new cleanup approach for both
    calcine and sodium-bearing waste that eliminates the need for a
    vitrification facility.

10. We believe that this comment reinforces the message in the report that
    the use of a single point estimate does not reflect uncertainties. We
    disagree that including a section in the accelerated plan that catalogs
    the government furnished services and items is the same or similar to
    accounting for uncertainties by providing a range of savings estimates.

11. While the accelerated plan for the Idaho National Laboratory
    briefly discusses reductions in risk to workers from less intrusive
    characterization and sampling techniques and elimination of a
    vitrification facility, it does not fully describe the advantages and
    disadvantages to workers and the environment. Therefore, we
    continue to believe that the savings estimates do not fully discuss the
    nonbudgetary impacts such as environmental risks.

12. We believe this section of the report, including the summary
    paragraph, adequately describes DOE’s management of waste
    processing activities.

13. Although section 114 of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act limits the
    amount of nuclear waste that can be deposited in the repository, this
    limitation is not relevant to the point in this paragraph. Therefore, we
    made no change to the final report.

14. We believe the report adequately conveys this information.

15. We address these comments in the Agency Comments section of the
    report.

16. We agree and have modified the final report to acknowledge that
    DOE had implemented the GAO recommendation to validate cost
    comparisons before constructing or expanding disposal facilities for
    low-level waste.



Page 63                                        GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
                  Appendix III: GAO Contact and Staff
Appendix III: GAO Contact and
                  Acknowledgments



Staff Acknowledgments

                  William R. Swick (206) 287-4800
GAO Contact
                  In addition to the individual named above, Carole Blackwell, Robert
Acknowledgments   Crystal, Doreen Feldman, Chris Hatscher, George Hinman, Gary Jones,
                  Nancy Kintner-Meyer, Avani Locke, Mehrzad Nadji, Cynthia Norris,
                  Tom Perry, and Stan Stenersen made key contributions to this report.




(360230)



                  Page 64                                    GAO-03-593 DOE High-Level Waste
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