oversight

Nuclear Waste Disposal: Better Planning Needed to Avoid Potential Disruptions at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2020-11-19.

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                United States Government Accountability Office
                Report to Congressional Committees




                NUCLEAR WASTE
November 2020




                DISPOSAL

                Better Planning
                Needed to Avoid
                Potential Disruptions
                at Waste Isolation
                Pilot Plant




GAO-21-48
                                              November 2020

                                              NUCLEAR WASTE DISPOSAL
                                              Better Planning Needed to Avoid Potential
                                              Disruptions at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Highlights of GAO-21-48, a report to
congressional committees




 Why GAO Did This Study                       What GAO Found
 DOE’s WIPP is the nation’s only              The Department of Energy’s (DOE) plans for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
 deep geologic repository for the             (WIPP) may ensure sufficient statutory capacity and physical space to meet its
 disposal of defense-related nuclear          disposal needs for the defense-related transuranic (TRU) waste in its current
 waste. DOE suspended operations              inventory. To reduce the volumes counted against the statutory limit, DOE
 at WIPP after two accidents in 2014          implemented a new counting method that excludes some of the air space found
 and resumed on a limited scale in            in certain waste packages (see fig.). The new method has been approved by the
 2017. DOE has initiated two projects         New Mexico state regulator. However, DOE may not have sufficient statutory
 to improve WIPP’s underground                capacity and physical space to meet future TRU waste disposal needs at WIPP if
 ventilation system and allow full
                                              significant volumes of TRU waste are added to DOE’s TRU waste inventory, as
 disposal operations to resume.
                                              anticipated, or if the new counting method is successfully challenged in court.
 However, DOE estimates WIPP’s
 existing physical space will be full         Old and New Volume Counting Methods for Certain Waste Containers Disposed of in the
 around 2025, and DOE faces a                 Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
 statutory limitation on how much
 waste can be disposed of at WIPP.
 Senate Report No. 115-125
 accompanying a bill for the National
 Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal
 Year 2018 includes a provision for
 GAO to review DOE’s actions to
 bring WIPP towards full operational
 status. This report examines DOE’s
 (1) plans to meet needs for physical
 space at WIPP without exceeding
 WIPP’s statutory capacity, (2)
 challenges to completing key                 DOE officials identified two challenges to completing key ventilation projects
 ventilation projects, and (3) plans for      needed to return WIPP to full disposal operations: (1) overseeing contractors
 adding physical space at WIPP                executing the projects and (2) obtaining regulatory approvals. According to the
 without interruption to operations.
                                              workforce plan for DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office, it may not have sufficient staff to
 GAO reviewed DOE documents for               address these challenges. The Carlsbad Field Office is responsible for project
 project designs, compared                    oversight, among other things, and 27 of the office’s 76 total positions were either
 schedules to best practices, and             vacant or occupied by acting officials as of January 2020. DOE has taken some
 interviewed DOE officials at the             steps to address these staffing shortages; however, DOE has not fully analyzed
 Carlsbad Field Office.                       options to address the vacancy issue. By doing so, DOE will be in a better
                                              position to address the challenges it has identified to effectively completing the
 What GAO Recommends                          projects at WIPP.
 GAO is making three
                                              DOE does not have assurance that WIPP’s planned additional physical space
 recommendations, including that
 DOE analyze options to address
                                              will be constructed before existing space is full, which would result in a potential
 staffing vacancies and improve its           interruption to disposal operations. GAO assessed DOE’s Integrated Master
 schedule for adding physical space           Schedule—which includes DOE’s estimate for completing some of WIPP’s
 at WIPP. DOE agreed with all three           additional physical space—against best practices for schedule estimating. GAO
 recommendations.                             found that the schedule did not substantially meet all four characteristics of a
                                              reliable schedule; to be considered reliable, a schedule must at least
                                              substantially meet all four. By improving the schedule, DOE will have greater
View GAO-21-48. For more information,         assurance in the reliability of its estimate for completing additional physical space
contact Allison B. Bawden at (202) 512-3841   before existing space is full, thereby avoiding interruptions to disposal operations.
or bawdena@gao.gov.


                                                                                         United States Government Accountability Office
Contents


Letter                                                                                    1
               Background                                                                 7
               DOE’s Plans for WIPP May Ensure Sufficient Statutory Capacity
                 and Physical Space to Dispose of Its Inventory of TRU Waste,
                 But the Inventory May Increase in the Future                           13
               DOE Identified Two Key Challenges to Completing Capital Asset
                 Projects at WIPP, and It May Not Have Sufficient Staff to
                 Address These Challenges                                               27
               DOE Does Not Have Assurance That Physical Space Will Be
                 Completed without an Interruption to Operations Because Its
                 Schedule Is Not Reliable and Faces Risks                               33
               Conclusions                                                              42
               Recommendations for Executive Action                                     43
               Agency Comments and Our Evaluation                                       43

Appendix I     Objectives, Scope, and Methodology                                       46



Appendix II    Assessment of DOE’s Integrated Master Schedule for WIPP
               Compared with Best Practices                                             52



Appendix III   Comments from the Department of Energy                                   56



Appendix IV    GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments                                    58



Tables
               Table 1: Vacancies at the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field
                       Office, Fiscal Years 2010-2020                                   30
               Table 2: Assessment of the Department of Energy’s (DOE)
                       Integrated Master Schedule for the Waste Isolation Pilot
                       Plant (WIPP) Compared with Industry Best Practices               53




               Page i                                       GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Figures
          Figure 1: Draft Conceptual Design for the Department of Energy’s
                   Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System at the
                   Waste Isolation Pilot Plant                                     10
          Figure 2: The Volumes of Outer and Inner Containers for Certain
                   Overpacked Transuranic Waste Disposed of in the
                   Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant              15
          Figure 3: Effect of the Revised Volume Counting Method on the
                   Volume of Transuranic Waste Already at the Waste
                   Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) and Planned for Disposal           17
          Figure 4: Draft Conceptual Design for Additional Waste Disposal
                   Physical Space at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)        19
          Figure 5: Department of Energy’s (DOE) Estimated Timeline for
                   Adding Physical Space at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
                   (WIPP)                                                          38




          Page ii                                      GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Abbreviations

CBFO              Carlsbad Field Office
COVID-19          Coronavirus Disease 2019
DOE               Department of Energy
EPA               Environmental Protection Agency
HEPA              high efficiency particulate air
M3                cubic meters
NEPA              National Environmental Policy Act of 1969
NMED              New Mexico Environment Department
NNSA              National Nuclear Security Administration
NQA-1             Nuclear Quality Assurance-1
SSCVS             Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System
TRU               transuranic
WIPP              Waste Isolation Pilot Plant




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Page iii                                                GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                       Letter




441 G St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20548




                       November 19, 2020

                       Congressional Committees

                       The United States has only one deep geologic repository for the disposal
                       of nuclear waste. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad,
                       New Mexico, is designed to safely dispose of a specific type of defense-
                       related nuclear waste, referred to as transuranic (TRU) waste, generated
                       by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) nuclear weapons research and
                       production and cleanup activities at sites across the country. 1 The TRU
                       waste is disposed of in underground “panels,” made up of rooms, that are
                       mined out of an ancient salt formation more than 2,000 feet below the
                       earth’s surface. In February 2014, two accidents occurred in the
                       underground area, one of which involved the release of radiological
                       material that contaminated portions of the facility. As a result, DOE was
                       forced to halt waste disposal operations while it worked to recover from
                       the accidents.

                       In January 2017, DOE resumed waste disposal operations at WIPP.
                       However, DOE has been limited to disposing of no more than 10
                       shipments of TRU waste per week at WIPP due to airflow issues resulting
                       from the 2014 accidents. According to DOE officials, under full disposal
                       operations, DOE is able to dispose of approximately 17 shipments per
                       week at WIPP. We reported in 2017 that having a reduced number of or
                       interruption to shipments to WIPP could impair DOE’s ability to meet its
                       cleanup and national security missions, as well as meet regulatory
                       cleanup milestones agreed to with states that host DOE sites. 2

                       Because of the radiological contamination resulting from one of the
                       February 2014 accidents, DOE needs to filter the air before it is

                       1“Transuranic”  is used to describe elements that have atomic numbers greater than that of
                       uranium. Transuranic waste is defined in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal
                       Act as waste containing more than 100 nanocuries of alpha-emitting transuranic isotopes
                       per gram of waste, with half-lives greater than 20 years, except for (A) high-level
                       radioactive waste; (B) waste that the Secretary of Energy has determined, with the
                       concurrence of the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, does not need
                       the degree of isolation required by the disposal regulations; or (C) waste that the Nuclear
                       Regulatory Commission has approved for disposal on a case-by-case basis in accordance
                       with part 61 of title 10, Code of Federal Regulations. Pub L. No. 102-579, § 2(20), 106
                       Stat. 4777, 4779 (1992).
                       2GAO, Proposed Dilute and Dispose Approach Highlights Need for More Work at the
                       Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, GAO-17-390 (Washington, D.C.: September 2017).



                       Page 1                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
exhausted from WIPP’s underground area. This filtration significantly
reduces the volume of air that flows through the area. The reduced airflow
reduces the air quality in the underground area, which limits the number
of people that can be in the underground area. It also limits the activities
that can be conducted there, such as mine maintenance using diesel-
powered equipment, since these activities create fumes and dust that
need to be removed.

To address these airflow issues and enable WIPP to increase the number
of shipments of waste it can dispose of each week, DOE has initiated two
capital asset projects—the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation
System (SSCVS) and the Utility Shaft—that together will act as an
entirely new ventilation system. According to officials from DOE’s
Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO), which is responsible for the management
and oversight of WIPP operations, the new system will allow sufficient
airflow for simultaneous mining, maintenance, and disposal operations in
the underground area while providing the ability to exhaust air containing
salt dust from mining operations without filtration. 3 However, DOE has
faced challenges in completing recent projects at WIPP within their cost
and schedule estimates. For example, as we reported in August 2016,
DOE’s project to resume waste disposal operations at WIPP after the
2014 accidents was delayed nearly 9 months and experienced $64 million
in cost increases after facing challenges, such as delays in acquiring
ventilation components from contractors. 4

In addition to the operational challenges at WIPP, there are statutory and
physical limitations on the amount of TRU waste that can be disposed of
at the site. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Land Withdrawal Act (hereafter
referred to as the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act) established a statutory
capacity for WIPP of 175,565 cubic meters (m3), meaning that by law,



3According   to DOE officials, they want to develop the capability to exhaust air containing
salt dust without filtration because it reduces wear and tear on the air filtration systems.
DOE officials told us that current plans call for exhausting air without filtration only after
the portions of the WIPP underground area that were contaminated in the 2014 accidents
are closed and no longer connected to the ventilation system. Officials also said that once
this portion of the facility is closed off, air exhausted without filtration is not likely to have
the potential to release radiological contaminants.
4GAO, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Recovery Demonstrates Cost and Schedule
Requirements Needed for DOE Cleanup Operations, GAO-16-608 (Washington, D.C.:
August 2016).




Page 2                                                       GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
WIPP can only accept up to this amount of TRU waste. 5 We found in
September 2017 that WIPP’s statutory capacity would likely be exceeded
if DOE included additional waste streams that were identified but were not
accounted for in its inventory, such as the TRU waste from the National
Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) Surplus Plutonium Disposition
Program. 6 Specifically, we found that including the waste from this
program’s new dilute and dispose approach in DOE’s TRU waste
inventory would result in the inventory exceeding WIPP’s statutory
capacity by approximately 11,000 m3. 7 We reported that DOE developed
a proposal to change the method for counting TRU waste to address the
statutory capacity issue. In December 2018, the New Mexico
Environment Department (NMED) approved a permit modification that
changed how the volume of TRU waste disposed of at WIPP was
calculated. 8

In 1998, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) certified that DOE
demonstrated that WIPP, including construction of 10 panels, would
comply with EPA’s radioactive waste disposal regulations (hereafter,
referred to as disposal regulations). As of January 2020, DOE had filled
most of the space in seven of the panels, while construction on an eighth
panel is expected to be completed in 2021. DOE no longer intends to
dispose of TRU waste in the final two panels included in EPA’s original
certification because of safety issues resulting from the two accidents that

5Pub. L. No. 102-579, § 7(a)(3), 106 Stat. 4777, 4785 (1992).. The act limits WIPP’s
capacity to 6.2 million cubic feet, which is 175,565 m3, of TRU waste. For purposes of
consistency, in this report we express all volumes in cubic meters.
6DOE’s   annual TRU waste inventory report is intended to keep track of the TRU waste
disposed of at WIPP and to estimate the volumes of TRU waste planned for disposal at
WIPP until the facility’s closure. DOE officials at WIPP send guidance annually to all DOE
sites that generate TRU waste on how each site should develop an updated estimate of
the amount of TRU waste it has stored at the site and the amount it anticipates will be
generated in the future. TRU waste that has been identified but is not yet planned for
disposal at WIPP is not included in DOE’s inventory. GAO-17-390.
7DOE   established the Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program in 1997 to dispose of
surplus, weapons-usable plutonium remaining at the end of the Cold War. In 2014, after
encountering cost increases in its program to dispose of surplus plutonium by converting it
into mixed oxide fuel for use in nuclear reactors, NNSA proposed an alternative
disposition approach referred to as dilute and dispose. In this new approach, NNSA would
dilute plutonium oxide using an inert material and then dispose of it as TRU waste in
WIPP.
8As discussed below, this permit modification was challenged in court. As of November 3,
2020, this lawsuit was still pending.




Page 3                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
occurred in 2014. 9 According to DOE estimates, the eighth panel will be
full by approximately 2025. However, DOE officials estimate that WIPP
will not have reached its statutory capacity at this point, and DOE’s
current planning assumes WIPP will remain open to accept TRU waste
until at least 2050. 10

To construct the physical space needed to dispose of TRU waste beyond
2025 and up to WIPP’s statutory capacity, DOE would first need to
develop a design for this capacity. We reported in 2017 that because this
design would differ significantly from the original design that was
approved in prior certifications, EPA would need to certify that the
additional physical space complies with EPA’s disposal regulations. 11
NMED would also need to approve a modification to WIPP’s Hazardous
Waste Facility Permit for DOE to construct and dispose of waste in the
additional physical space at WIPP.

DOE began the formal planning process for additional physical space in
January 2018 and is conducting the required National Environmental
Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) analysis. 12 DOE officials told us that this
analysis is estimated to be complete in February 2021. In its draft
Carlsbad Field Office Strategic Plan 2019-2024, DOE explained that the
objective for the design of the additional physical space at WIPP was to


9Priorto the 2014 accidents, DOE had plans for disposing of TRU waste in the hallways
between the eight panels once the panels themselves were full. The hallways that were
considered for waste disposal were divided into two areas that were labeled panels 9 and
10. According to DOE officials, as a result of the accidents, they no longer plan to dispose
of TRU waste in these hallways, in part because DOE could not conduct sufficient
maintenance while operations were suspended after the accidents.
10DOE’s    estimates for filling the available disposal space at WIPP were based on shipping
and disposal schedules as of January 2020. According to DOE officials, the rate at which
TRU waste is being shipped to and disposed of at WIPP was reduced in March 2020 in
response to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, and it is unclear what
the full impact of the pandemic will be on future shipping and disposal rates. Furthermore,
while DOE officials state that their plans assume that WIPP will accept TRU waste until at
least 2050, a draft permit renewal document submitted to NMED in March 2020 stated
that DOE planned to continue to operate WIPP until the facility had reached its statutory
capacity.
11GAO-17-390.

12NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate the likely environmental effects of proposed
projects using an environmental assessment or, if the projects likely would significantly
affect the environment, a more detailed environmental impact statement evaluating the
proposed project and alternatives.




Page 4                                                   GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
construct a sufficient number of additional panels to dispose of TRU
waste in WIPP up to the facility’s statutory capacity. 13

The Senate Armed Services Committee report accompanying a bill for the
National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 included a
provision for us to review DOE’s actions taken toward bringing WIPP
toward full operational status. 14 This report examines (1) the extent to
which DOE’s long-term plans for meeting its TRU waste disposal needs
include sufficient physical space at WIPP without exceeding the facility’s
statutory capacity, (2) the challenges DOE has identified to completing
the capital asset projects needed to return WIPP to full disposal
operations, and (3) the extent to which DOE’s plans for adding physical
space at WIPP provide assurance that this additional capacity will be
completed without an interruption to waste disposal operations.

To address all three objectives, we conducted a site visit to WIPP in June
2019. During the site visit, we obtained documentation and interviewed
officials from DOE’s CBFO, which manages and oversees WIPP
operations under DOE’s Office of Environmental Management.

To examine the extent to which DOE’s long-term plans for meeting its
TRU waste disposal needs include sufficient physical space at WIPP
without exceeding the facility’s statutory capacity, we reviewed DOE
documentation and data on the proposed modification to WIPP’s permit to
determine how TRU waste volumes would be measured, recorded, and
reported under the revised counting method. To assess the impact of the
revised counting method on current and projected TRU waste totals, we
reviewed data collected for the fiscal year 2018 DOE TRU Waste
Inventory Report from DOE’s Comprehensive Inventory Database and
Waste Data System on the volume and quantities of TRU waste
containers already disposed of and expected to be disposed of in the
future at WIPP. 15 We assessed the reliability of the data used to develop
this report and found it was reliable for the purpose of reporting on the
13Department of Energy, Carlsbad Field Office Strategic Plan 2019-2024, DOE/CBFO-19-
3605, Revision 0.1, Final Draft for Stakeholder Input (August 2019).
14S.   Rep. No. 115-125, at 349 (2017).
15Information on the volume and quantities of TRU waste containers expected to be
disposed of in WIPP are based on waste estimates reported by DOE TRU waste
generator sites as of December 31, 2017. These sites were asked to report the most
comprehensive TRU inventory estimate available projected through calendar year 2050
and additional estimates beyond 2050, if available.




Page 5                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
change to the volume counting method and determining whether DOE
has sufficient statutory capacity for its inventory of TRU waste. We also
reviewed DOE documentation on the design and development of the
additional physical space at WIPP. We interviewed officials from Sandia
National Laboratory’s Carlsbad Office regarding their involvement in the
design of the additional physical space. 16 In addition, we interviewed
officials from DOE’s CBFO about the status of DOE’s planning and
interviewed officials from NMED and EPA regarding their oversight of
DOE’s efforts to address the statutory capacity and physical space issues
at WIPP.

To examine challenges DOE has identified to completing the capital asset
projects needed to return WIPP to full disposal operations, we reviewed
DOE cost and schedule documents for the two capital asset projects to
identify the scope, cost, and schedule estimates. We interviewed DOE
officials responsible for managing and overseeing the projects and
reviewed project planning documents to understand what the primary
challenges to completing each project on time and within budget were
and to determine whether sufficient risk mitigation strategies had been
identified. We also reviewed documents from other organizations that had
identified challenges at WIPP, such as the National Academies of
Science and the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, to determine
whether the challenges they identified would impact work on the capital
asset projects. To understand how DOE defines full disposal operations,
we reviewed information on the quantity of weekly TRU waste shipments
to WIPP and interviewed CBFO officials about how they defined limited
and full disposal operations. We reviewed DOE’s CBFO 2019 Workforce
Analysis and 5-Year Workforce Plan (2020-2024) to identify staffing
trends, whether DOE considers current staffing levels to be sufficient to
support the multiple ongoing activities at WIPP, and what strategies DOE
is suggesting for addressing workforce gaps at CBFO. Because the
workforce plan identified staffing gaps at CBFO, we also reviewed the
plan to identify whether DOE had developed hiring strategies, including
the use of flexibilities and other human capital strategies and tools, and
considered how it could use these strategies to eliminate gaps. We
reported in 2003 that developing such a hiring strategy was a key



16Sandia’s Carlsbad Office provides certain scientific expertise to DOE’s CBFO, most
notably by developing the performance assessments that demonstrate to EPA that
WIPP’s long-term performance remains in compliance with applicable regulations.




Page 6                                                 GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                      principle for effective strategic workforce planning. 17 In addition, we
                      interviewed DOE officials to determine whether DOE has consistently
                      filled key positions at CBFO, what efforts DOE has made to fill vacant
                      positions, and any future plans they have to address staffing challenges.

                      To examine the extent to which DOE’s plans for adding physical space at
                      WIPP provide assurance that this additional capacity will be completed
                      without an interruption to waste disposal operations, we conducted an
                      assessment of WIPP’s Integrated Master Schedule—which integrates the
                      schedule estimates for the capital asset projects, the plans for adding
                      physical space, and ongoing WIPP operations—to determine whether it
                      meets the best practices found in GAO’s Schedule Assessment Guide. 18
                      Additionally, we reviewed DOE documentation on the schedule risks that
                      it had identified and any mitigation plans that it had developed to respond
                      to those risks. We also interviewed officials from NMED and EPA to
                      obtain their views on the viability of DOE’s schedule for completing
                      additional physical space.

                      We conducted this performance audit from April 2019 to November 2020
                      in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
                      Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
                      sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
                      findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that
                      the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
                      conclusions based on our audit objectives.


Background
WIPP’s Regulatory     EPA and NMED both play a role in regulating WIPP. Specifically, EPA
Oversight Structure   regulates the radiological safety of WIPP. As required by the WIPP Land
                      Withdrawal Act, EPA issued final regulations regarding the disposal of
                      TRU waste; these regulations apply to WIPP. 19 The WIPP Land
                      Withdrawal Act also required EPA to certify that WIPP will comply with
                      these disposal regulations and to issue criteria for certifying DOE’s
                      compliance with the disposal regulations. EPA issued this criteria as

                      17GAO,Human Capital: Key Principles for Effective Strategic Workforce Planning,
                      GAO-04-39 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 11, 2003).
                      18GAO,GAO Schedule Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Project Schedules,
                      GAO-16-89G (Washington, D.C.: December 2015).
                      1940 C.F.R. pt. 191, subpts. B,C. The regulations EPA issued also apply to the disposal of
                      spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste.




                      Page 7                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
regulations in 1996 and certified WIPP’s compliance in 1998. The act also
requires EPA to recertify WIPP’s compliance with the disposal regulations
every 5 years. To support the recertification, DOE prepares a
performance assessment, which uses mathematical models and
computer calculations to assess cumulative releases of radioactive
isotopes under specified scenarios relative to release limits established
by EPA. DOE submitted the fourth Compliance Recertification Application
for WIPP to EPA in March 2019; EPA is currently reviewing this
application and anticipates completing its review by late 2020 or early
2021.

If DOE needs to make changes to activities or conditions at WIPP that
differ significantly from the most recent certification, DOE must notify EPA
of its intent to make the change. 20 EPA then evaluates the proposed
change and makes a determination about whether it differs significantly
from what was approved in WIPP’s most recent recertification and
therefore requires approval. According to EPA officials, there are no
defined criteria for “significant” changes, though generally a change is
considered to be significant if it affects the design or long-term
performance of the facility. According to EPA officials, significant
proposed changes may require extensive review, a recalculation of the
performance assessment, and—in some cases—a federal rulemaking
process that includes public comment. 21 EPA officials told us that for less
significant changes, EPA can indicate its approval in an official memo to
DOE but may also choose to seek public comment on the change.

NMED has regulatory authority over WIPP because EPA has authorized
New Mexico to administer its own hazardous waste management
program under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act instead of
the federal program managed by EPA. Pursuant to this authorization,
NMED issues the hazardous waste storage and disposal permit for WIPP
under the New Mexico Hazardous Waste Act and state regulations. DOE
must obtain approval from NMED for any modifications to the WIPP

2040 C.F.R. § 194.4(b)(3)(i). In June 2002, EPA sent a letter to DOE stating that DOE did
not need to notify EPA about activities that are part of routine operations and maintenance
at WIPP apart from the annual change report required by regulation. The memorandum
included examples of routine operations and maintenance, such as periodic roof
maintenance and installation of ground control monitoring devices.
21According to EPA officials, DOE submits “planned change notifications” for changes it
does not consider significant, and “planned change requests” for changes it considers
significant. However, these are DOE terms and are not in EPA regulation. EPA makes the
final determination of whether a change is significant.




Page 8                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                                                           permit. There are three classes of permit modifications (classes 1, 2, and
                                                           3) that vary in terms of the process for review and the amount of
                                                           supporting documentation required. The type of permit modification
                                                           required depends on the type of change DOE requests to the permit. In
                                                           general, NMED officials told us that the Class 3 modifications require the
                                                           most significant level of review.

WIPP’s Capital Asset                                       To provide the capabilities needed to resume full disposal operations at
Projects                                                   WIPP, DOE has initiated two capital asset projects—the SSCVS and the
                                                           Utility Shaft. Together, these projects will act as one complete ventilation
2014 Accidents at the Waste Isolation                      system to facilitate the return to full disposal operations and the planned
Pilot Plant                                                increase in physical space at WIPP—specifically, the mining of additional
In February 2014, two accidents occurred at                panels.
the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant that resulted in
the suspension of waste disposal operations.
First, on February 5, a salt truck caught fire in          The SSCVS project includes the design and construction of high
the underground area, creating substantial                 efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters and fans, a connection to the
smoke and soot that damaged key equipment
and facilities. Then, on February 14, a
                                                           existing exhaust shaft, standby diesel generators, an exhaust stack, and
transuranic waste container in the                         site support utilities. According to DOE officials, the SSCVS takes
underground area ruptured, ejecting its                    advantage of several technological advancements that have occurred
radioactive contents, combustible gases, and
other material into the air and onto adjacent              since the original ventilation system was built in the 1980s, including
waste containers. The materials and gases                  increased automation of airflow controls. Once completed, the SSCVS
ignited and created fire and smoke that were
not properly contained by the ventilation
                                                           will provide sufficient airflow to support additional personnel and
system. As a result of the release, portions of            equipment underground. It will allow two modes of operations: filtered and
the facility’s underground area (seen below)               unfiltered.
and existing ventilation system were
radiologically contaminated.
                                                           According to DOE officials, the intent is to return to “clean” operations and
                                                           be able to operate on unfiltered exhaust during both mining and disposal
                                                           operations, with the capacity to switch both operations to filtered exhaust
                                                           in the event of another radiological release in the underground area.
                                                           When the SSCVS is in operation and the facility is operating in filtered
                                                           mode, the air exhausted from the underground area will go through a
                                                           process in which salt dust and humidity are removed, and then the air
                                                           passes through HEPA filters to remove potential contamination. See
                                                           figure 1 for an illustration of the SSCVS project. Construction on the
                                                           SSCVS began in May 2018 and is projected to be completed in 2023 at
Sources: GAO analysis of DOE information; GAO (photo). |
GAO-21-48                                                  an estimated total project cost of $288 million. According to DOE officials,
                                                           they expect to complete a proposal for changing the cost and schedule
                                                           baselines for the project later in 2020 to reflect cost overruns and
                                                           schedule delays that have occurred.




                                                           Page 9                                         GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Figure 1: Draft Conceptual Design for the Department of Energy’s Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System at the
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant




                                         As part of the planning process for the ventilation upgrades, in 2015,
                                         DOE’s contractor performed an analysis of alternatives to determine
                                         whether the project should include an additional exhaust shaft at WIPP,
                                         among other things. 22 Based on the analysis, DOE initiated a project to
                                         construct an additional shaft and referred to this project as the Exhaust
                                         Shaft. In our August 2016 report, we found significant issues with this
                                         analysis of alternatives and recommended that DOE include a cost-

                                         22An analysis of alternatives is the process of identifying, analyzing, and selecting a
                                         preferred alternative to best meet the mission need by comparing the operational
                                         effectiveness, costs, and risks of potential alternatives.




                                         Page 10                                                   GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
benefit analysis, as is consistent with best practices for conducting
analysis of alternatives, or document why the analysis is not needed. 23
DOE concurred with our recommendation and decided to analyze the
alternatives again. According to DOE officials, the second analysis
identified several key technical flaws in the first analysis, including that
the selected location for the new exhaust shaft was too close to the
existing underground area and would not meet Mine Safety and Health
Administration standards. 24 DOE made changes to this project to address
the flaws in the first analysis and changed the name from Exhaust Shaft
to Utility Shaft to better reflect its purpose.

Specifically, this project will construct a shaft that will be configured as an
air intake shaft to draw fresh air into the planned additional physical
space. The Utility Shaft project will complement the SSCVS and, in
addition to providing a new air intake source, it will provide supplemental
capability for transporting mined salt, equipment, and personnel to and
from the underground area. The Utility Shaft will be constructed to the
west of the existing repository and will include hallways connecting it to
the repository. Once the Utility Shaft is completed, WIPP’s existing air
intake shaft will be converted to an exhaust shaft, which will provide the
capability for exhausting air directly instead of routing it through the
SSCVS. To increase worker safety and improve vehicle access to WIPP,
the Utility Shaft project also includes a bypass road at the WIPP site to
move all non-WIPP-related traffic away from the facility.

Construction of the Utility Shaft began in fiscal year 2020. The estimated
date for the project’s completion is December 2023 at an estimated total
project cost of $197 million. According to DOE officials, DOE would have
preferred to begin construction of both projects concurrently; however,
due to funding constraints, the two projects had to be undertaken
sequentially. The SSCVS was initiated first because DOE considered it
the highest priority.

DOE is managing both of these projects using DOE Order 413.3B, which
provides the requirements for managing DOE capital asset projects from

23GAO-16-608.

24The WIPP Land Withdrawal Act requires the Mine Safety and Health Administration to
inspect WIPP not less than four times each year in the same manner as it evaluates mine
sites under the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The Secretary of Energy
must take necessary actions to ensure the prompt and effective correction of any
deficiency identified in an inspection.




Page 11                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                      planning through construction. 25 This order includes requirements for
                      projects, such as the SSCVS and the Utility Shaft, to develop and
                      maintain an Integrated Master Schedule in a manner consistent with
                      methods and best practices identified in GAO’s schedule guide. This
                      requirement does not apply for other, non-capital asset DOE projects.

Best Practices for    GAO’s schedule guide compiles best practices corresponding to the
Schedule Estimating   characteristics of high-quality and reliable schedule estimates. 26 A high-
                      quality, reliable schedule has four characteristics: it is comprehensive,
                      well-constructed, credible, and controlled.

                      •   Comprehensive. A comprehensive schedule captures all government
                          and contractor activities necessary to accomplish a project’s
                          objectives. If a schedule is not comprehensive, with all activities
                          accounted for, it is uncertain whether all activities are scheduled in the
                          correct order, resources are properly allocated, missing activities will
                          appear on the critical path, or a schedule risk analysis can account for
                          all risk.
                      •   Well-constructed. A well-constructed schedule sequences all
                          activities using the most straightforward logic possible. If a schedule is
                          not well-constructed, it will not be able to properly calculate dates and
                          predict changes in the future, among other things.
                      •   Credible. A credible schedule uses data about risks to predict the
                          level of confidence in meeting a completion date, and necessary
                          schedule contingency and high-priority risks are identified based on
                          conducting a robust schedule risk analysis. If a schedule is not
                          credible, it may not accurately capture project risks, among other
                          things.
                      •   Controlled. A controlled schedule is updated periodically to
                          realistically forecast dates for activities. If a schedule is not controlled,
                          it may not be able to, among other things, allow for properly
                          measuring the schedule performance or be used for accurate
                          schedule forecasting.

                      A schedule estimate is considered reliable if each of the four
                      characteristics is assessed as being substantially or fully met. If any of the
                      characteristics are assessed as being not met, minimally met, or partially

                      25Departmentof Energy, Program and Project Management for the Acquisition of Capital
                      Assets, DOE Order 413.3B (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 20, 2016).
                      26GAO-16-89G.




                      Page 12                                              GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                              met, then the schedule estimate does not fully reflect the characteristics
                              of a high-quality schedule and cannot be considered reliable.

                              DOE’s long-term plans for WIPP may ensure sufficient statutory capacity
DOE’s Plans for               and physical space to dispose of its inventory of TRU waste. Specifically,
WIPP May Ensure               its revised method for counting TRU waste volume may ensure specific
                              statutory capacity, and its plans for additional physical space may ensure
Sufficient Statutory          sufficient physical space. However, these steps may not be enough to
Capacity and                  ensure sufficient statutory capacity and physical space if significant
                              volumes of TRU waste are added to DOE’s TRU waste inventory or the
Physical Space to             revised volume counting method is successfully challenged in court.
Dispose of Its
Inventory of TRU
Waste, But the
Inventory May
Increase in the Future
DOE’s Revised Method for      In 2018, DOE revised the method it uses to count the volume of TRU
Counting TRU Waste            waste it disposes of at WIPP against the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act
                              statutory capacity. This revision reduced the combined volume of waste
Volume at WIPP May
                              already at and planned for disposal at WIPP by approximately 21 percent
Ensure Sufficient Statutory   (37,515 m3). By revising the method for counting TRU waste disposed of
Capacity to Dispose of Its    at WIPP, DOE increased the likelihood that WIPP will have sufficient
Inventory of TRU Waste        statutory capacity to dispose of the volume of waste estimated in DOE’s
                              2018 Annual TRU Waste Inventory Report. 27 DOE pursued this revised
                              counting method after we found in 2017 that DOE’s inventory of TRU
                              waste would likely exceed WIPP’s statutory capacity of 175,565 m3 and
                              recommended that DOE determine whether a revision to the method for
                              counting waste volumes could be implemented to address this issue. 28

                              How TRU waste is disposed of at WIPP depends on the amount of
                              radiation dose measured at the surface of the waste container. There are
                              two types of TRU waste at WIPP, “contact-handled” and “remote-



                              27Atthe time of our analysis, the most current available data on the volumes of waste
                              DOE expected to be disposed of in WIPP were from DOE’s 2018 Annual TRU Waste
                              Inventory Report.
                              28See   GAO-17-390.




                              Page 13                                                 GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
handled.” 29 Contact-handled waste has a lower radioactivity and
comprises the vast majority of the TRU waste already disposed of at
WIPP, as well as the TRU waste inventory planned for disposal at WIPP.
Much of the contact-handled TRU waste disposed of at WIPP is
packaged in 55-gallon drums, and some of these drums are subsequently
packed inside larger containers, called overpacks, that hold multiple
drums. DOE relies on several types of overpacks for the disposal of TRU
waste. For example, pipe overpacks are individual drums that contain a
pipe in which the waste is placed; this configuration allows the drum to
hold a higher concentration of radiological material than a standard drum.
See figure 2 for an illustration of the volumes of outer and inner
containers for three types of overpacks used for disposing of TRU waste
at WIPP. Remote-handled waste is also packaged in canisters or drums;
however, because of its higher radioactivity, remote-handled waste must
also be transported and disposed through the use of special equipment to
shield workers from coming into contact with the waste. When remote-
handled waste is disposed of at WIPP, it is either placed into boreholes in
the walls of the panels or, if it is packaged into a special shielded
container, placed on the floor of the panels as is done with contact-
handled waste. 30




29Contact-handled TRU waste has a radioactive surface dose rate not greater than 200
millirem per hour. Such waste typically emits relatively little gamma (penetrating) radiation,
and waste containers can be handled directly by workers. Remote-handled TRU waste
has a radioactive surface dose rate of 200 millirem or more per hour. Remote-handled
TRU waste emits relatively high levels of gamma radiation, which represents the primary
radiological health hazard for workers handling such waste; the waste containers should
not be handled directly by workers, and they require heavy container shielding or remote-
handling equipment. For the purposes of this report, when we refer to waste or TRU
waste, we are referring to the total of contact-handled and remote-handled waste, unless
otherwise specified.
30Shielded containers were designed to allow certain types of remote-handled waste to be
disposed of on panel floors in WIPP, similar to contact-handled waste. These containers
are shielded by lead to prevent the radioactivity from the container’s contents from
reaching the surface of the container.




Page 14                                                   GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Figure 2: The Volumes of Outer and Inner Containers for Certain Overpacked Transuranic Waste Disposed of in the
Department of Energy’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant




                                        Until 2018, DOE calculated the volume of contact-handled waste
                                        disposed of at WIPP using the volume of the outer container when waste
                                        was overpacked, rather than the inner containers holding the waste (i.e.,
                                        drums or pipes). However, in response to our 2017 recommendation, in
                                        January 2018 DOE submitted to NMED a Class 2 permit modification
                                        request for WIPP’s permit that would change the way in which DOE
                                        counts waste volumes at WIPP for the purposes of counting the waste
                                        against the facility’s statutory capacity. 31 Specifically, this permit
                                        modification would allow DOE to count only the volume of the inner
                                        disposal containers that hold contact-handled TRU waste in overpacked
                                        31See GAO-17-390. According to NMED, Class 2 permit modifications involve changes
                                        that are significant but are not large technical changes that would be deemed
                                        controversial by stakeholders. A public comment period is required but typically there are
                                        not public hearings as part of this process.




                                        Page 15                                                 GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
containers. This counting method would apply retroactively to overpacked
containers already at WIPP.

The revised counting method, according to DOE, lowers both the volume
of TRU waste already disposed of at WIPP and the waste in DOE’s TRU
waste inventory that is planned to be disposed of in the future and would
be counted against WIPP’s statutory capacity. The reduction in volume
counted against the statutory capacity results in an estimated 35,839 m3
of undesignated capacity—that is, capacity beyond what is needed for the
TRU waste planned for disposal in DOE’s 2018 inventory. Figure 3
illustrates the effect of the revised counting method on the volume of TRU
waste already disposed of at WIPP and planned for disposal. NMED
approved a modification to WIPP’s permit that changed the counting
method in December 2018. 32




32According to EPA officials, in June 2018, DOE submitted a planned change notice to
EPA for its proposed change to the method for counting TRU waste volumes at WIPP.
These officials also stated that they did not believe the change to be a significant change,
per EPA’s radioactive waste disposal regulations.




Page 16                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Figure 3: Effect of the Revised Volume Counting Method on the Volume of Transuranic Waste Already at the Waste Isolation
Pilot Plant (WIPP) and Planned for Disposal




                                        Note: The existing and planned volume amounts come from the Department of Energy’s 2018 Annual
                                        TRU Waste Inventory Report. This figure does not include any wastes that may be under
                                        consideration for disposal at WIPP but are not included in the 2018 report. The volumes for the waste
                                        planned for disposal at WIPP include 7,263 m3 estimated to be generated by the National Nuclear
                                        Security Administration’s Surplus Plutonium Disposition program using the now discontinued Mixed-
                                        Oxide approach. This volume of waste was removed from the inventory in DOE’s 2019 Annual TRU
                                        Waste Inventory Report.



DOE’s Plans for Additional              DOE officials are still in the process of designing and assessing the
Physical Space at WIPP                  environmental impact of additional physical space at WIPP. However, the
                                        draft design DOE provided to us may be sufficient to dispose of DOE’s
May Be Sufficient to
                                        inventory of TRU waste. As discussed previously, as of August 2020,
Dispose of Its Inventory of             WIPP is permitted to use eight disposal panels that are projected to be
TRU Waste                               filled by 2025, so DOE is planning for additional physical space. To
                                        develop a strategy for adding physical space at WIPP, in January 2018,
                                        DOE convened stakeholders for a series of three workshops on physical




                                        Page 17                                                        GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
space. 33 The first workshop analyzed the design of additional panels and
strategies to mine them; the second, the design and maintenance of the
core area of WIPP’s underground area; and the third, ways to address the
unique disposal challenges of remote-handled waste. During the
workshops, officials discussed various aspects of the future design of
WIPP, including the number of new hallways needed to support the
additional panels and the best location for the additional panels. After the
workshops, DOE integrated the results and produced a report outlining its
analysis of alternatives for future underground development at WIPP. 34

During their planning, DOE officials calculated that nine additional panels,
using panel designs similar to those of the existing panels, should be
sufficient to meet DOE’s TRU waste disposal needs as outlined in its
2018 Annual TRU Waste Inventory Report. 35 DOE officials decided that
they would construct additional panels up the point at which the volume of
TRU waste that could be disposed of in the panels equaled WIPP’s
statutory capacity. According to DOE officials involved in the planning,
DOE used historical data from prior TRU waste disposal efforts at WIPP
and the revised volume counting method to determine the average
volume of TRU waste that had been disposed of in the existing panels.
From there, they calculated that nine additional panels would be sufficient
to dispose of the remaining volume of TRU waste allowed for by the
statutory capacity (see figure 4 for an illustration of the draft conceptual
design for the additional panels). 36 According to DOE officials, this
analysis took into account the 34 metric tons of diluted plutonium from
NNSA’s Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program, even though that waste
had not yet been added to DOE’s TRU Waste Inventory Report because
NNSA had not yet completed the documentation necessary to initiate the

33Stakeholders included miners, waste handlers, geotechnical staff, safety professionals,
mining managers, Carlsbad Field Office officials, external mining experts, and officials
from Los Alamos National Laboratories and Sandia National Laboratories.
34See Department of Energy, Analysis of Alternatives for Future Underground
Development at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (January 2018).
35According   to DOE officials, their analysis of alternatives concluded that panel designs
similar to those of the existing panels would help streamline the regulatory approval
process.
36DOE did not provide us with the data they used to determine the number of additional
panels that would be needed to reach the statutory capacity of WIPP, so we were unable
to verify the reliability of their analysis. According to DOE officials, their determination
regarding the number and configuration of new panels in the additional physical space is
subject to change because the design for additional physical space is still in its conceptual
phase.




Page 18                                                   GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                                         program. According to DOE officials, it was important to consider this
                                         waste because it would create a large number of overpacks with smaller
                                         pipe containers holding the diluted plutonium. DOE officials told us that
                                         only the volume of the pipes would count against the statutory capacity,
                                         so this waste would account for less than 1 percent of WIPP’s statutory
                                         capacity but, due to the large number of drums, likely would require
                                         significant physical space for disposal.

Figure 4: Draft Conceptual Design for Additional Waste Disposal Physical Space at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)




                                         Note: This figure does not include northern portions of the original WIPP underground area, which
                                         were mined during DOE’s research and development phase for constructing WIPP, because these
                                         are not intended for use in transuranic waste disposal. A panel is an area in the underground area
                                         that consists of seven rooms where waste is disposed of.



                                         Page 19                                                       GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
During the design process for the additional physical space, DOE officials
identified several lessons learned from the construction of the original
portion of the facility that they intend to incorporate in their construction of
the additional physical space. For example, the original portion of WIPP
has four hallways, including one hallway for transporting TRU waste for
disposal. 37 This transportation hallway is only large enough for one piece
of waste disposal equipment to travel at a time, according to DOE
officials. To dispose of waste, one piece of waste disposal equipment
travels to the panel and back using the single transportation hallway.
DOE officials determined that adding a fifth hallway to the design for the
purposes of transporting TRU waste would improve the efficiency of
movement in the new underground area. DOE officials told us that this
additional hallway would allow waste disposal equipment to travel in both
directions at the same time; that is, one piece of equipment could travel to
the panels to dispose of TRU waste while an empty piece of equipment
travels from the panels. The additional transportation hallway would also
allow TRU waste disposal to continue if equipment breaks down in one of
the transportation hallways. Figure 4, above, shows the proposed five-
hallway configuration. Furthermore, DOE officials stated that their plans
call for smaller and more frequent support columns to facilitate mining,
improve safety during mining, and improve long-term stability.

In the design process, DOE also identified a potential improvement to its
process for disposing of remote-handled TRU waste. As previously
mentioned, because remote-handled waste has higher radioactivity, there
are greater restrictions on how it can be disposed. To date, remote-
handled waste has been permitted for disposal primarily in boreholes
drilled into the walls in panels 4 through 8. According to DOE officials,
some of the boreholes in the walls of panels 4 through 6 were blocked by
contact-handled waste containers already disposed of in those panels
before the boreholes could be filled with remote-handled waste. Because
of the inability to use the boreholes as planned in panels 4 through 6,
none of these panels were filled to more than 35 percent of their
permitted remote-handled waste volume.

Further, since WIPP resumed waste disposal operations in 2017, DOE
has not been able to safely drill boreholes in the walls in panel 7 because
the radioactive contamination took place there. Therefore, DOE has only
been able to dispose of remote-handled waste in special shielded


37Hallways are the underground areas that connect the panels and are where workers
transport TRU waste.




Page 20                                              GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
containers placed on the panel room floor. There are only a limited
number of shielded containers available for remote-handled waste
disposal; therefore, only a small amount of remote-handled waste has
been disposed of in panel 7. To address the problems DOE has faced
with disposing of remote-handled waste in the existing panels at WIPP,
DOE is looking into expanding its use of shielded containers.

DOE estimated that the majority of the inventory of remote-handled waste
could be disposed of in shielded containers on panel room floors rather
than in panel-wall boreholes if four new shielded containers were
approved and went into use. According to DOE officials, even with the
panel design changes to accommodate remote-handled waste in the
planned additional physical space, it will still be challenging to dispose of
all remote-handled waste in boreholes. When possible, DOE prefers to
dispose of remote-handled waste in shielded containers, as it simplifies
the disposal process by not requiring the drilling of boreholes and the use
of remote-handling equipment in the underground area. DOE originally
had only one shielded container design, which was appropriate for limited
types of remote-handled waste. To address this limitation, DOE decided
as part of its planning efforts for additional physical space to pursue
developing four new shielded container designs to increase the amount
and types of remote-handled waste that could be placed on the panel
room floor like contact-handled waste. The Nuclear Regulatory
Commission would need to certify the new containers and determine that
they satisfy its quality assurance and other requirements, which DOE
officials stated typically takes about 18 months. 38 According to DOE
schedule documents, as of January 2020, DOE was in the process of
designing the new shielded containers and estimated that it would submit
the designs to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in late 2020.

Following the January 2018 workshops in which DOE and stakeholders
began planning for the additional panels, DOE began developing
documentation for a NEPA analysis of the environmental impacts of
additional physical space at WIPP. DOE officials said that they expect the
NEPA process to be complete in February 2021. After the review, DOE
will develop a permit modification request to submit to NMED and will
submit a notification to EPA of the proposed change to WIPP. According
to EPA and NMED officials, DOE will require significant effort to prepare
the documentation and obtain approval for the additional physical space


38According to EPA officials, DOE should submit a planned change notice to EPA
describing its plans to use different shielded containers prior to their use.




Page 21                                              GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                             from each agency. Specifically, the EPA approval process will require
                             extensive modeling efforts by DOE to demonstrate that WIPP will
                             continue to meet EPA regulations with the additional physical space.
                             According to NMED officials, adding panels would likely require a Class 3
                             permit modification given the complex nature of expanding WIPP;
                             however, no final decision has been made about what class of permit
                             modification is required.

                             According to DOE officials, their current planning for additional physical
                             space includes design flexibility that would allow them to further increase
                             the physical space through additional panels in the event that a change is
                             made to the facility’s statutory capacity and other TRU waste streams are
                             identified and require disposal. However, any additional physical space
                             would have to undergo an additional design and approval process similar
                             to the one that is currently under way.

Potential Increases in the   Despite the revision to the method for counting TRU waste volumes and
TRU Waste Inventory and      DOE’s plans for additional physical space, DOE may have insufficient
                             statutory capacity and physical space to meet future TRU waste disposal
Legal Challenges Could
                             needs at WIPP if (1) significant volumes of TRU waste are added to
Result in Insufficient       DOE’s TRU waste inventory or (2) the permit modification authorizing the
Statutory Capacity and       revised volume counting method is successfully challenged in court.
Physical Space at WIPP
for DOE’s Future TRU         According to DOE officials, it is possible that the volume of TRU waste
                             planned for disposal at WIPP may exceed the facility’s statutory capacity
Waste Disposal Needs         and physical space if more waste is added to the TRU waste inventory,
                             although DOE officials noted that compliance with the statutory capacity
                             is closely tracked. 39 A substantial amount of such waste may be added
                             due to increased production of TRU waste. In particular, the production of
                             plutonium pits generates new TRU waste, and federal law requires the
                             Secretary of Energy to ensure the nuclear security enterprise produces
                             not less than 80 war reserve plutonium pits during 2030. 40 According to


                             39DOE officials emphasized that estimated volumes of TRU waste are uncertain and final
                             volumes of waste can differ significantly from the initial estimates.
                             4050 U.S.C. § 2538a(a)(5). Plutonium pits are critical components of nuclear weapons,
                             and the new production will be used to modernize the current stockpile of pits that were
                             produced during the Cold War from 1978 to 1989. If the Secretary does not make an
                             annual certification that DOE programs and budget will enable the nuclear security
                             enterprise to meet the 80 pit requirement, the Chairman of the Nuclear Weapons Council
                             must submit to congressional defense committees a plan to enable the nuclear security
                             enterprise to meet the requirement.




                             Page 22                                                GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
NNSA, to meet this requirement, Los Alamos National Laboratory (Los
Alamos) would produce approximately 30 pits per year by 2026, and
Savannah River Site (Savannah River) would produce approximately 50
pits per year in 2030 (actual production numbers are classified). 41 Based
on September 2020 estimates from an NNSA environmental impact
statement, producing 30 pits per year at Los Alamos and 50 pits per year
at Savannah River could generate 566 m3 of TRU waste annually
(consisting of 107 m3 at Los Alamos and 459 m3 at Savannah River). This
environmental impact statement assumes that each facility will operate for
approximately 50 years. 42 Using this assumption, these facilities could
create approximately 28,300 m3 of TRU waste that was not accounted for
in the 2018 annual TRU waste inventory. 43 Using the revised volume
counting method, this addition to the inventory would account for
approximately 79 percent of the undesignated statutory capacity, leaving
limited capacity for TRU waste not accounted for in the 2018 TRU waste
inventory unless this or other future waste streams result in less waste
than estimated.

In addition to the TRU waste generated through plutonium pit production,
DOE officials told us that other waste streams are currently under
consideration for disposal at WIPP but are not yet part of DOE’s TRU
waste inventory because they do not meet the criteria for inclusion in the
inventory. Most notably, DOE has not yet added all of the estimated TRU
waste for NNSA’s Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program, and therefore
this waste is not considered when determining whether there is sufficient
statutory capacity at WIPP for all future TRU waste. According to NNSA
documents, this program will dilute 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium
and dispose of it in WIPP. In 2017, we reported that disposing of the
waste from this program would require approximately a panel and a half
in WIPP. However, an April 2020 report from the National Academies
reviewing this program and its potential impact on WIPP noted that the
program will likely be responsible for disposing of a total of 42.2 metric



41Department of Energy, NNSA Final Supplement Analysis of the Complex
Transformation Supplemental Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (December
2019).
42This assumes that Los Alamos will generate waste from 2026 to 2075 and Savannah
River will generate waste from 2030 to 2079.
43DOE added the volume of TRU waste estimated to be produced during pit production at
Los Alamos through 2050 in the 2019 annual TRU waste inventory.




Page 23                                              GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
tons of surplus plutonium in WIPP. 44 The estimated volume of TRU waste
for this program was not included in the 2018 Annual TRU Waste
Inventory Report because DOE had not yet completed the documentation
necessary to initiate the program. In August 2020, DOE issued an
amended record of decision titled, “Supplement Analysis for Disposition of
Additional Non-Pit Surplus Plutonium.” In this record of decision, DOE
designated 7.1 of the 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium for disposal at
WIPP. DOE officials stated that the estimated volume of TRU waste it will
create will be added to the next TRU waste inventory report. According to
DOE officials, the remaining surplus plutonium not addressed by this
record of decision will need a subsequent record of decision in order to be
added to the TRU waste inventory.

Furthermore, several other waste streams are being considered for
disposal at WIPP. However, according to DOE, these waste streams
need to meet several criteria before they are added to the TRU waste
inventory, such as: being officially determined to be defense-related,
having required data, and not containing any restricted items. DOE tracks
several other waste streams that it considers potentially bound for
disposal at WIPP but cannot consider part of the regular inventory
because the waste has not yet met all of the criteria for inclusion.
Additionally, there are activities that DOE expects will generate TRU
waste in the future, but DOE has not begun the planning process that
would estimate waste volumes. The waste in these categories include the
following:

•   Tank waste and buried waste. DOE is considering disposing of
    certain tank waste from Idaho National Laboratory, the Hanford Site,
    and certain quantities of waste from the West Valley Demonstration
    Project at WIPP. However, the NMED permit prohibits disposal of
    waste from certain tanks at Idaho National Laboratory and Hanford at
    WIPP. 45 In addition, the tank waste is currently classified as high-level
    radioactive waste and the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act prohibits
    disposal of such waste at WIPP. Furthermore, DOE considers the
    waste from West Valley as being prohibited from being disposed of at


44National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Review of the Department
of Energy’s Plans for Disposal of Surplus Plutonium in the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
(Washington, D.C.: April 2020).
45Specifically,the waste from tanks identified in table C-4 of the NMED permit are
prohibited from disposal at WIPP.




Page 24                                                 GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
    WIPP because it does not classify these wastes as defense TRU
    waste.
•   Future cleanup activities. According to DOE officials, they expect to
    generate more TRU waste in the future from the decontamination and
    demolition of contaminated facilities at certain sites, such as Los
    Alamos and Savannah River, and from exhuming additional buried
    waste. 46 However, DOE has not developed estimates for the volume
    of TRU waste these activities may produce because the projects are
    not yet planned. In September 2017, we reported that there were at
    least 44 facilities at DOE sites that could generate TRU waste during
    decontamination and demolition or that have buried TRU waste for
    which no volume estimates have been reported to DOE. 47 According
    to DOE officials we interviewed in 2020, while DOE has issued
    guidance to sites requesting that they provide as much information as
    they can regarding waste expected to be generated from the
    decontamination and demolition of facilities, there are still facilities for
    which there are not yet estimates of TRU waste that could be
    generated.

If some or all of these wastes are added to the inventory of TRU waste
planned for future disposal, it is possible that there will be insufficient
statutory capacity and physical space at WIPP, even with the recent
change to the volume counting method and with the planned additional
physical space. Disposal of wastes in excess of WIPP’s statutory capacity
would require an amendment to the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act or an
additional repository for TRU waste disposal. The National Academies’
April 2020 report came to a similar conclusion and noted that since DOE
management had stated that waste from national security missions would
be given priority at WIPP, DOE would need to provide priority to waste
from NNSA’s Surplus Plutonium Disposition Program. DOE and NNSA
officials we spoke with agreed that the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act may
need to be evaluated in the 2040 time frame to address potential capacity
needs at WIPP beyond 2050 due to waste created by NNSA mission
activities.

In addition to the issues posed by waste streams not yet accounted for in
the inventory, there is an ongoing legal challenge to DOE’s revised

46While certain volumes of TRU waste from Los Alamos and Savannah River expected to
be generated in the future are projected out to 2050, Hanford has projected at least one
waste stream out to 2062.
47GAO-17-390.




Page 25                                                GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
volume counting method. Opposition to the revised volume counting
method began after DOE submitted a Class 2 permit modification request
to NMED in January 2018 seeking approval for the method. The permit
modification request generated significant public interest and concern.
This interest and concern, along with the complex nature of the proposed
change, led NMED to determine that it was appropriate to process the
permit modification as a Class 3 permit modification rather than a Class 2
permit modification. 48 Several members of the public expressed
opposition to the revised counting method in comments, asserting, among
other things, that it went against the original intent of the WIPP Land
Withdrawal Act by not accounting for the air space around the TRU
waste. In response to the opposition to the draft permit modification and
several requests from the public requesting a hearing, in October 2018,
NMED, in conjunction with DOE, met with those who had submitted
comments and requests for a hearing in an attempt to resolve issues
raised in the comments.

After these meetings, NMED approved the revised counting method in
December 2018; however, the approval was appealed in court by a group
of nongovernmental organizations in January 2019 on the grounds that
the revised counting method is contrary to law, among other things. As of
November 3, 2020, the appeal was pending before the New Mexico Court
of Appeals. In the meantime, the permit modification for the revised
volume counting method is in effect. NMED officials expressed
confidence that the permit modification for the revised volume counting
method would be upheld by the court, but noted that the National TRU
Waste Program is maintaining two sets of records of TRU waste: one
using the old volume counting method and the other using the revised
volume counting method. Without a valid permit modification for the
revised volume counting method, the current inventory of TRU waste
would surpass WIPP’s statutory capacity, requiring DOE to pursue an
amendment to the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act to be allowed to dispose of
the waste at WIPP or to pursue an additional repository for TRU waste
disposal.




48According to officials from NMED, Class 3 permit modifications are the most complex
and are used for the most controversial changes.




Page 26                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                             DOE officials identified two key challenges faced by the two capital asset
DOE Identified Two           projects being undertaken—the SSCVS and the Utility Shaft—to provide
Key Challenges to            the ventilation necessary to return WIPP to full disposal operations.
                             Specifically, DOE officials identified challenges in (1) identifying and
Completing Capital           overseeing specialized contractors and (2) obtaining the needed
Asset Projects at            approvals from NMED to continue with construction. CBFO is responsible
                             for managing these capital asset projects and addressing these
WIPP, and It May Not         challenges, and because of a significant number of vacancies, the office
Have Sufficient Staff        may not have sufficient staff to do so. DOE has not fully assessed the
                             flexibilities it could use to fill staffing gaps.
to Address These
Challenges
DOE Officials Described      According to DOE officials we interviewed, they face two key challenges
Challenges in Identifying    in completing the SSCVS and Utility Shaft capital asset projects. First,
                             DOE officials told us they face challenges in identifying and overseeing
and Overseeing
                             contractors that meet certain quality assurance requirements that apply to
Specialized Contractors      the SSCVS and Utility Shaft projects. According to DOE officials, because
and Obtaining the            WIPP is classified as a Hazard Category 2 nuclear facility, construction
Necessary Regulatory         contractors and certain components, such as diesel generators and
Approval for Capital Asset   HEPA filters, must meet Nuclear Quality Assurance-1 (NQA-1)
                             requirements—a common set of standards established by the American
Projects at WIPP             Society of Mechanical Engineers to ensure safety in nuclear facilities,
                             among other things. These officials told us that it can be difficult to identify
                             contractors that have experience doing construction work following the
                             requirements, or vendors that sell components that have met these
                             requirements. For example, the officials said that DOE had difficulty in
                             identifying vendors of diesel generators and HEPA filters that both met
                             the requirements and could produce the items it needed on a timely
                             basis. In an attempt to mitigate this issue, DOE began the process of
                             acquiring these items early in the project design process.

                             According to DOE and contractor officials managing the capital asset
                             projects, they have also run into issues with overseeing subcontractors
                             who are performing work on the projects. 49 While a contractor official
                             stated that the contracts include stipulations that NQA-1 requirements are
                             to be followed and that proper documentation needs to be completed,

                             49In 2016, we found that DOE encountered problems with acquiring components at WIPP
                             during its project to recover the facility and resume operations after the 2014 accidents. In
                             the process of acquiring components for a ventilation system upgrade, some of the
                             components that arrived to the site were found to be damaged. The components had to be
                             returned to the manufacturer for repair, delaying the recovery project by several months.
                             GAO-16-608.




                             Page 27                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
DOE officials told us that they must frequently remind contractors of these
requirements and ensure they are being followed.

Second, DOE officials told us they face challenges in obtaining approval
from NMED for the permit modification needed to continue with
construction of the Utility Shaft. NMED approved the permit modification
covering the work for the SSCVS in March 2018. However, while a draft
permit modification was issued for the Utility Shaft in June 2020 for public
comment, this permit modification had not been approved as of October
2020. According to NMED officials, the approval process may be slowed
because the renewal of WIPP’s permit is also ongoing and may take
precedence.

To address the potential delay in obtaining approval for the Utility Shaft,
DOE requested a temporary authorization from NMED that would allow it
to begin work excavating the new shaft. 50 NMED approved this temporary
authorization in April 2020; however, later that month, a nongovernmental
organization in New Mexico filed an appeal of the NMED order granting
the authorization in the New Mexico Court of Appeals. The court
dismissed the appeal in June 2020, and the state Supreme Court
declined to hear the appeal in September 2020.

These two challenges DOE officials identified have affected the
schedules for both projects. The schedule for each project included
additional time, referred to as schedule margin, to account for project
risks including the challenges posed by NQA-1 requirements and delays
in obtaining approvals. According to project schedule documents, 200
days of schedule margin were included in the baseline estimate for the
SSCVS, and the project has used 163 of those days due to realized
project risks. A contractor official noted that a portion of the delays came
from problems with the oversight and management of contractors. DOE
officials told us that the cost overruns and schedule delays for the SSCVS
are significant enough to require a change to the project’s cost and
schedule baselines. The process for completing this baseline change was
still ongoing as of July 2020.

For the Utility Shaft, the baseline estimate included 106 days of schedule
margin, and the project has used 59 of those days. In this case, the
contractor official indicated that all of the delays resulted from issues with

50Temporary   authorizations allow work for no more than 180 days and may be reissued
for up to 180 days if a class 2 or 3 permit modification request for the activity covered by
the temporary authorization has been made.




Page 28                                                   GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                            awarding the contract for shaft construction because DOE has not yet
                            received approval from the state to move forward with the project. In both
                            cases, the projects have used over half of their schedule margin with
                            more than 2 years remaining before the projects are estimated to be
                            complete. According to DOE officials, once the schedule margin is
                            depleted, any further delays are likely to delay the completion date of the
                            project.

DOE May Not Have the        DOE’s field office responsible for directly overseeing the SSCVS and
Staff Needed to Address     Utility Shaft projects, CBFO, is experiencing significant staffing shortages
                            that may impede its ability to manage the challenges to these projects
Capital Asset Project
                            and remain on schedule. According to human capital data provided by
Challenges at WIPP and      DOE, as of January 2020, 27 of the 76 total full-time positions at CBFO
Has Not Fully Assessed      were either vacant or occupied by an acting official who held another
Flexibilities for Filling   position in the office. In particular, in CBFO’s Office of Program
Staffing Gaps               Management, whose portfolio includes the management and oversight of
                            the SSCVS and Utility Shaft projects, eight of 10 full-time positions were
                            vacant or held by an acting official as of September 2019. The vacancies
                            at CBFO are affecting other WIPP activities, as the Defense Nuclear
                            Facilities Safety Board noted in a May 2020 letter to DOE. 51 The letter,
                            which addressed safety planning at WIPP, raised concerns that because
                            of the vacancies in CBFO’s safety programs division, CBFO does not
                            have sufficient qualified and trained staff to conduct the necessary federal
                            oversight of safety planning for WIPP.

                            DOE officials told us that they historically have had difficulty filling
                            positions at CBFO due to the office’s remote location in southeastern
                            New Mexico, hundreds of miles from the closest large cities, including
                            Albuquerque and Santa Fe. DOE data on vacancies at CBFO show that
                            there was a significant increase in the percentage of positions vacant at
                            the office in fiscal year 2015. According to DOE officials, this increase is
                            primarily due to the significant number of new positions that were
                            approved in response to the 2014 accidents at WIPP and the difficulty of
                            filling these positions quickly. Table 1 shows the number of positions at
                            CBFO that were vacant each fiscal year from 2010 through 2020.




                            51Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Documented Safety
                            Analysis Review (Washington, D.C.: May 2020).




                            Page 29                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Table 1: Vacancies at the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office, Fiscal
Years 2010-2020

    Fiscal year        Approved positions                        Filled positions         Vacant positions
    2010                                         54                             48                        6
    2011                                         54                             55a                      -1
    2012                                         60                             57                        3
    2013                                         59                             55                        4
    2014                                         52                             48                        4
    2015                                         77                             51                      26
    2016                                         77                             63                      14
    2017                                         77                             63                      14
    2018                                         70                             62                        8
    2019                                         73                             53                      20
    2020                                         76                             49b                     27
Source: GAO presentation of Department of Energy information. | GAO-21-48
a
 DOE officials told us that they received approval to fill an additional position beyond what was initially
approved in fiscal year 2011, which created a surplus that is reflected as a negative number in the
vacancy column.
This is the number of filled positions as of January 2020.
b




CBFO has experienced a large increase in the number of vacancies over
the last 2 fiscal years, 2019 and 2020. According to DOE officials, several
factors have contributed to the current level of vacancies at CBFO. These
officials told us that the primary factor is the significant increase in oil and
gas industry activity in the region surrounding Carlsbad. The oil and gas
companies in the area are competing to hire staff with skillsets similar to
those needed at CBFO and can offer higher salaries. CBFO is included in
the “rest of the United States” category of localities under the federal
general schedule, meaning that it receives the lowest adjustment to its
pay scales for cost of living. This has not only limited CBFO’s ability to
attract candidates to fill its vacancies, but has also resulted in existing
CBFO staff leaving for positions with the oil and gas industry.
Furthermore, the arrival of oil and gas industry workers has approximately
tripled the population of the region around Carlsbad, which has created a
shortage of housing and significantly increased the cost of living in the
area. CBFO officials cited the high cost of living and lack of available
housing as additional factors contributing to the difficulty in attracting
candidates to fill vacancies. Finally, CBFO officials told us that the large
number of vacancies has required several officials to take on the
responsibilities of multiple positions for an extended period of time, which
has led to further departures and retirements.


Page 30                                                                     GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
DOE has taken several actions over the last several years to attempt to
fill the vacancies at CBFO. However, officials noted that these actions are
unlikely to be enough to fully address the vacancy issue. DOE has, for
example, offered hiring pay incentives of up to 25 percent and has offered
to cover allowable relocation expenses. 52 However, according to a DOE
human capital official, some pay incentives are only available to those
being newly hired to federal government positions, but eight of the
vacancies, including several senior management positions, are unlikely to
be filled by someone new to the federal government. This official also told
us that, even for those positions for which the incentives are likely to
apply, the incentives are insufficient to attract applicants with the
necessary qualifications due to the high cost of living in the area and the
comparatively lower salaries.

In late 2019, DOE pursued a new strategy for addressing CBFO’s
vacancies by approving the opening of a satellite office in Albuquerque,
New Mexico. A DOE official said that they believe this office will be able
to more readily fill vacancies due to its ability to draw from a larger
population base than the Carlsbad region and due to the more available
and affordable housing options. DOE officials stated they intend for this
satellite office to eventually fill 10 of the 27 vacant positions; however,
these officials told us that the new Albuquerque office was intended to fill
positions in the National TRU Program—which coordinates with DOE
cleanup sites around the nation—but would not fill positions that have
responsibilities at the WIPP site. According to CBFO’s fiscal year 2019
workforce plan, with the ongoing work of the Utility Shaft and SSCVS
projects and with plans to mine additional panels at WIPP, it is important
that DOE fill the vacancies at CBFO to address this increasing workload.

In particular, key CBFO positions that are either vacant or filled with an
official acting in a temporary capacity have responsibilities associated
with addressing the challenges that DOE faces in identifying and
overseeing contractors for its capital asset projects. As mentioned above,
CBFO’s Office of Program Management is responsible for overseeing the
SSCVS and the Utility Shaft and has experienced vacancies in key
positions. The responsibilities of the director of this office are currently
being performed by an official who holds another permanent position at
CBFO. The position of risk management and planning specialist is

52After DOE increased the number of positions at CBFO in response to the 2014
accidents, DOE’s human capital office issued a memo that allowed CBFO to offer hiring
bonuses of up to 25 percent. This memo also approved the offering of relocation
expenses.




Page 31                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
vacant. Furthermore, the position of federal project director for both
projects was held for nearly a year by an official who had temporarily
rotated from another DOE site before a permanent replacement was
hired.

In our December 2003 report on the key principles for effective strategic
workforce planning, we stated that agencies should develop hiring
strategies, including the use of flexibilities and other human capital
strategies and tools, and consider how these strategies can be used to
eliminate gaps. 53 In its 2019 workforce plan, CBFO reported that current
workforce gaps may worsen as the scope of work at the site increases
with the return to full operations at WIPP. The plan suggests that DOE
should use flexibilities and other human capital strategies to fill vacancies,
but the flexibilities it recommends—hiring and relocation incentives—have
been ineffective to date.

According to DOE officials, other flexibilities are available to help fill
vacancies, such as a change to the locality pay for the Carlsbad area so
that the salaries would be more competitive and better compensate for
the increased cost of living. A DOE official told us that they are gathering
data to support the request for a change to locality pay; however, DOE
has not analyzed that flexibility and others to determine whether they
could be implemented at CBFO because officials have been focused on
other pressing issues at WIPP. By identifying and fully analyzing which
additional flexibilities DOE could use to address the vacancy issue at
CBFO, DOE will be in a better position to recruit and retain the workforce
needed to effectively address the challenges DOE officials identified in
managing and overseeing projects at WIPP.




53GAO-04-39.




Page 32                                         GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                            DOE has developed an Integrated Master Schedule that includes an
DOE Does Not Have           estimate for constructing additional physical space at WIPP before
Assurance That              existing space is full and waste disposal operations are interrupted.
                            However, DOE does not have assurance that this additional space will be
Physical Space Will         completed without an interruption to waste disposal operations for two
Be Completed without        reasons. First, we found that the Integrated Master Schedule was not
                            developed consistent with schedule estimating best practices and
an Interruption to          therefore did not meet the characteristics of a reliable schedule. Second,
Operations Because          there are significant risks that could delay the schedule and DOE did not
                            compensate for these risks by including additional contingency time.
Its Schedule Is Not         Further, DOE’s efforts to mitigate these risks may not be sufficient to
Reliable and Faces          prevent an interruption to waste disposal operations.
Risks
DOE’s Schedule Estimate     DOE has developed a schedule estimate for adding physical space at
for Adding Physical Space   WIPP before an interruption to waste disposal operations. However, we
                            determined that this schedule estimate was not developed consistent with
at WIPP Is Not Reliable
                            schedule estimating best practices and therefore did not meet the
Because It Does Not         characteristics of a reliable schedule. According to DOE and contractor
Substantially Meet All      officials, DOE developed an Integrated Master Schedule for WIPP in
Schedule Estimating Best    October 2019 that estimated the dates for WIPP’s operations and the
Practices                   completion dates for projects through 2025. The Integrated Master
                            Schedule integrates the schedules for three projects: the SSCVS, the
                            Utility Shaft, and general operations at WIPP to manage the facility and
                            dispose of waste. DOE’s efforts to construct additional physical space are
                            included as part of general operations. According to Integrated Master
                            Schedule documentation, activities within these projects are frequently
                            dependent on one another so that, for example, delays in activities
                            needed to complete the SSCVS may ultimately delay construction of
                            additional physical space. As of January 2020, the Integrated Master
                            Schedule estimated that the first panel of the planned additional physical
                            space would be completed in June 2025. 54

                            To understand whether DOE’s estimate for constructing additional
                            physical space is reliable, we assessed the Integrated Master Schedule
                            for WIPP to determine whether it was developed consistent with schedule

                            54For our evaluation of the Integrated Master Schedule, DOE provided us with a version of
                            the schedule that was updated with the status of all activities as of January 2020. In March
                            2020, DOE took action to reduce activities at the WIPP site and CBFO due to the COVID-
                            19 pandemic. According to DOE officials, they are in the process of updating the schedule
                            to reflect delays in their projects from these actions.




                            Page 33                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
estimating best practices identified in our Schedule Assessment Guide
and thereby met the four characteristics of a reliable schedule. 55 The full
results of our analysis are in Appendix II. According to our analysis, the
Integrated Master Schedule substantially met two of the characteristics of
a reliable schedule (comprehensive and controlled) and partially met two
of the characteristics (well-constructed and credible). 56

•   Comprehensive: We found that the Integrated Master Schedule
    substantially met the best practices for this characteristic. For
    example, the Integrated Master Schedule followed best practices by
    including activities for both DOE and its contractors that are
    necessary to accomplish the program’s objectives. In addition, most
    activities included in the Integrated Master Schedule identified the
    resources that were needed for completing the activity. We also found
    that, per best practices, the Integrated Master Schedule generally
    reflected how long each activity would take and allowed for
    measurement of the progress of specific activities. For example, all
    activities had work breakdown structure elements assigned that
    defined in detail the work necessary to accomplish a project’s
    objectives. However, the work breakdown structure documentation
    provided did not contain all the elements that were assigned within the
    schedule.
•   Well-constructed: We found that the Integrated Master Schedule
    partially met the best practices for this characteristic. For example, the
    Integrated Master Schedule followed best practices by including
    dependencies between most activities that establish how activities are
    to be carried out. However, we assessed the Integrated Master
    Schedule to have only partially met best practices for a well-
    constructed estimate because, for example, two of the three project
    schedules in the Integrated Master Schedule had questionable critical
    paths, which is the longest continuous sequence of activities between
    the program’s start and finish. For example, the critical paths for
    general operations at WIPP and the SSCVS were obscured by long-
    duration activities. Including long-duration activities on the critical path
    prevents management from having a clear idea of what specific
    activities are driving project completion. According to best practices,
    when possible, long-duration activities should be reevaluated to
    determine if they can be broken down into more manageable pieces,

55GAO-16-89G.

56The   ratings for each characteristic are determined by assigning each relevant best
practice rating a number and taking the average. For a schedule to be considered reliable,
all four characteristics will have been at least substantially met.




Page 34                                                 GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
    particularly if they appear on the critical path. Additionally, the critical
    path for the SSCVS was not continuous from the date the schedule
    was updated to provide a complete picture of the project from start to
    finish. Without a valid critical path, management cannot focus on
    activities that will detrimentally affect the key program milestones and
    deliveries if they slip.
•   Credible: We found that the Integrated Master Schedule partially met
    the best practices for this characteristic. For example, the Integrated
    Master Schedule followed best practices by including a schedule risk
    analysis to determine (1) a confidence level for achieving the program
    schedule and (2) how much additional time should be added to the
    schedule for contingency. However, we assessed the Integrated
    Master Schedule to have only partially met best practices for a
    credible estimate because, for example, the contingency for the
    Integrated Master Schedule was determined based on the impact of
    risks to activities on or near the critical path. Best practices state that
    risk analysis should be performed on all work in the schedule because
    any activity can become critical under some circumstances. In
    addition, DOE did not include the schedule risk model itself in the
    documentation it provided. Without the model, we were unable to
    validate that the correct information was input in the model.
    Furthermore, we identified issues with the horizontal and vertical
    traceability of the Integrated Master Schedule. According to best
    practices, for the schedule to be horizontally traceable, it needs to
    show the logical relationships between activities and clearly show
    when different activities hand off from one to the next. We found the
    Integrated Master Schedule had issues with the sequencing of all
    activities that could result in the schedule not correctly calculating how
    delays affect succeeding activities. For the schedule to be vertically
    traceable, best practices state that lower-level schedules (that is, a
    schedule that details only a portion of the program but at a higher
    level of detail) should be able to be rolled up into the high-level
    program schedule. The Integrated Master Schedule was generally
    vertically traceable; however, a lower-level schedule we reviewed
    included completion dates for two activities that were not in the
    Integrated Master Schedule.
•   Controlled: We found that the Integrated Master Schedule
    substantially met the best practices for this characteristic. For
    example, the Integrated Master Schedule followed best practices by
    including a process for trained personnel to update the schedule
    weekly and to report monthly to DOE on schedule progress.
    Additionally, as outlined in best practices, DOE officials stated that
    changes to the baseline schedule go through a change control



Page 35                                           GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
    process in which management needs to review, approve, and
    document any changes. However, the Integrated Master Schedule did
    not fully meet best practices for a controlled estimate because, for
    example, DOE did not yet have a capability in place for analyzing
    schedule progress to identify trends. As of February 2020, DOE
    officials told us that they were in the process of establishing this
    capability.

According to DOE officials, the degree to which each of the three projects
followed schedule estimating best practices depended on whether they
were a capital asset project. These officials told us that DOE
requirements for schedule estimating allowed them to tailor their
approach based on the complexity of each project. The two capital asset
projects developed their portions of the Integrated Master Schedule
following DOE Order 413.3B. This order establishes the requirements for
cost and schedule estimating for capital asset projects and requires that
these estimates be developed following best practices. The schedule
estimate for general operations at WIPP, however, covers more routine
activities and is not subject to Order 413.3B. As a result, the schedule for
general operations at WIPP includes less detailed breakouts of specific
activities and generally was not developed following all estimating best
practices. While best practices indicate that it is appropriate to tailor the
schedule estimating approach, because critical elements of the
schedule—such as the establishment of a critical path—were not
developed following best practices, the Integrated Master Schedule
cannot be considered reliable in its current state. By making
improvements to the Integrated Master Schedule so that it sufficiently
follows best practices to at least substantially meet the four
characteristics of a reliable schedule, DOE can better ensure that its
estimate for completing additional physical space at WIPP before an
interruption to waste disposal operations is reliable.




Page 36                                         GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
DOE’s Mitigation of Key                            There are several key schedule risks for completing the first new panel of
Schedule Risks for Adding                          the additional physical space by 2025 that, if realized, could affect DOE’s
                                                   TRU waste cleanup program at multiple sites across the country. For
Physical Space at WIPP
                                                   instance, DOE faces risks related to the two capital asset projects.
May Not Be Sufficient to                           According to DOE officials, DOE needs the capabilities provided by the
Avoid an Interruption to                           SSCVS and Utility Shaft projects in order to complete construction of the
Waste Disposal                                     first new panel of the additional physical space by 2025. As mentioned
Operations                                         previously, however, both projects are facing challenges with identifying
                                                   and overseeing contractors and getting necessary regulatory approvals.
Activities in Response to the Coronavirus
Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic at the
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP)
On March 16, 2020, the Secretary of Energy
instructed all Department of Energy sites,
including the Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO),
to reduce operations to only essential
activities and direct the workforce to telework
to the maximum extent possible. As a result,
CBFO issued a partial stop work order to its
lead contractor for WIPP, Nuclear Waste
Partnership LLC., on March 27. According to
CBFO officials, essential activities included:
•    mission-critical site staffing such as
     emergency responders, facility
     operations, and emergency response;
•    disposal of transuranic (TRU) waste at a
     reduced rate, with no more than 5
     shipments per week;
•    waste characterization and certification
     activities to support the process of
     shipping waste from TRU waste
     generator sites; and
•    essential activities to maintain the WIPP
     underground area, such as roof bolting,
     that are needed to ensure the
     underground area remains safe.
CBFO’s original stop work order was for 30
days, and it was extended for another 30
days on April 27. Based on direction from the
Office of Environmental Management, CBFO
has developed a plan for a return to
operations in four phases, with a greater
number of operations resuming at the site in
each phase. On June 1, 2020, CBFO initiated
Phase 1, which allows the contractor to
resume high-priority work that has a low risk
of exposing workers at the WIPP site to
COVID-19.
Source: GAO presentation of Department of Energy
information. | GAO-21-48




                                                   Page 37                                        GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                                         According to DOE officials, these challenges could create delays to the
                                         point that the projects can no longer be completed on time. 57 If these
                                         delays occur, officials stated that the schedule for completing the first new
                                         panel of the additional physical space would also be impacted.

                                         In addition to the risks posed by delays to the capital asset projects, there
                                         is a risk that DOE’s efforts to add physical space could be delayed by
                                         lengthy regulatory reviews by EPA and NMED. Figure 5 outlines DOE’s
                                         estimated timeline for the approval and construction of additional physical
                                         space at WIPP based on the Integrated Master Schedule as of January
                                         2020.

Figure 5: Department of Energy’s (DOE) Estimated Timeline for Adding Physical Space at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
(WIPP)




                                         57According to DOE officials, limitations on work at WIPP that began in March 2020 due to
                                         the COVID-19 pandemic have resulted in slight delays to the capital asset projects.
                                         However, construction work for the SSCVS was deemed an essential activity and has
                                         continued.




                                         Page 38                                                GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
As we reported in 2017, EPA officials have indicated that adding physical
space to WIPP constitutes a significant change to the original design of
the facility and will therefore require EPA review and approval of the
proposed design. 58 DOE officials stated in 2017 that they would need to
develop an entirely new three-dimensional mathematical model that can
assess whether the facility will continue to meet EPA regulatory
requirements with the added physical space. 59 However, DOE officials
told us in June 2019 that work on the three-dimensional model would not
be complete in time to be used for EPA’s review and that DOE would
instead modify its existing two-dimensional model. Before submitting the
proposed design to EPA, DOE will need to submit the modified two-
dimensional model for an independent peer review process that takes
approximately 9 months to a year, according to DOE officials. DOE
officials stated that there is a risk that the model will fail its peer review or
will be deemed insufficient to support the submission for the design of the
additional physical space during EPA’s review. If either of these risks
were to be realized, DOE and EPA officials told us that this could delay
the approval of the additional physical space by a year or more while the
work on the three-dimensional model is completed.

DOE estimated in its Integrated Master Schedule that EPA’s review of the
design for the additional physical space would take approximately 18
months. EPA officials, however, told us it is possible the review process
could take longer than DOE has estimated. EPA officials indicated that
they could approve DOE’s proposal for additional physical space either
through a letter to DOE or through a rulemaking, and the decision on
which approach to use will be based on the materials submitted by DOE
and direction provided by EPA management. If the additional physical
space is approved through a letter, EPA officials stated that it is possible
that this process could be completed within the 18-month time frame that
DOE had estimated in its Integrated Master Schedule. However, EPA
officials noted that this estimate was ambitious and that the process could
take approximately 6 additional months if the agency decides to seek
public comment before completing the review. If EPA officials determine
that a rulemaking is necessary, officials stated that this would likely add




58GAO-17-390.

59The  model developed by DOE is a simulation that DOE uses to demonstrate to EPA that
WIPP will meet the EPA disposal regulations containment requirements for the likelihood
of a radiological release over a 10,000-year period.




Page 39                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
up to a year or more beyond DOE’s 18-month estimate for the review
process.

NMED officials also identified risks that could delay DOE’s estimated time
frame for approval for additional physical space. They note that for DOE
to construct and dispose of waste in a panel in the underground area, that
panel must first be approved as a hazardous waste disposal unit by
NMED, which would take place through the permit modification process.
According to the Integrated Master Schedule, DOE plans to submit a
permit modification for additional physical space sometime in late spring
to early summer of 2021 and estimates that NMED’s review will take
approximately 21 months. According to NMED officials, this amount of
time is generally a reasonable estimate for reviewing such a permit
modification.

However, as mentioned earlier, NMED is already engaged in reviewing
the permit modification for the Utility Shaft and in the process of renewing
WIPP’s permit, and NMED officials stated that these reviews may take
longer than estimated. 60 NMED officials told us that if either of these
reviews is not complete when DOE submits the permit modification for
additional physical space, there may not be sufficient staff resources to
conduct these reviews simultaneously, and the review of the permit
modification for additional physical space could be delayed. Furthermore,
DOE’s Integrated Master Schedule indicates that it intends to mine the
hallways that would connect the existing WIPP underground areas to the
planned additional physical space prior to NMED’s review and approval of
the additional physical space. According to DOE officials, conducting this
mining prior to NMED’s approval of the permit modification is necessary
in order to complete the additional physical space in time to prevent an
interruption to waste disposal operations. However, according to DOE
and NMED officials, as of September 2020, discussions are ongoing
between the two parties about whether the mining of these hallways can
move forward as scheduled or if NMED will need to approve this work by
modifying the permit.

DOE is taking steps to mitigate the risk of schedule delays due to lengthy
regulatory reviews, although officials stated that it is difficult to do so since
the review processes are conducted by other agencies. For example,
DOE officials stated that they intend to invite EPA officials to observe the

60DOE  officials told us that reviews of the Utility Shaft permit modification and permit
renewal have been delayed because NMED officials are prioritizing their responsibilities
for managing a portion of New Mexico’s response to COVID-19.




Page 40                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
independent peer review of the two-dimensional model so that EPA
officials will already be familiar with it when they begin their review. In
addition, DOE officials told us that they are communicating frequently with
NMED regarding the status of their plans for additional physical space so
the agency can anticipate when staff resources will be needed for
reviews. EPA officials told us that although they continue to communicate
periodically with DOE regarding WIPP, they have not received information
on DOE’s plans for additional space at WIPP. According to DOE officials,
the steps they are taking may help to mitigate the risk of schedule delays
due to lengthy regulatory reviews, but they are unable to fully mitigate this
risk, and the potential for schedule delays remains. Furthermore, DOE
analyzed schedule risks in the Integrated Master Schedule only for the
capital asset projects, and the regulatory risk identified above is for the
portion of the Integrated Master Schedule scope outside of the capital
asset projects. As a result, DOE has not included additional contingency
time in the Integrated Master Schedule to address this risk.

DOE officials stated that there could be potential impacts to DOE’s TRU
waste cleanup program at multiple sites across the country if DOE is not
able to complete the first new panel of the additional physical space in
time to prevent an interruption to waste disposal operations at WIPP. We
reported in 2017 that the slowing or interruption of waste disposal
operations at WIPP could impair DOE’s ability to meet its cleanup and
national security missions as well as cleanup milestones agreed to with
states that host DOE sites. A senior DOE official told us in March 2020
that the efforts to resume plutonium pit production at Los Alamos National
Laboratory could be negatively impacted by an interruption to waste
disposal operations. 61 In a 2019 report on program and project
management at DOE, we identified conducting program risk management
throughout the life of the program as a leading program management
practice. 62 Specifically, we stated that following this leading practice
would include actively identifying, monitoring, analyzing, accepting,
mitigating, avoiding, or retiring program risks. According to DOE officials,
they have not developed a plan for mitigating the potential impacts of the
risk to DOE’s TRU waste cleanup program because their focus is on

61According    to the senior DOE official, TRU waste will be generated by efforts to prepare
the facility at Los Alamos where pits will be manufactured and the ongoing work to
construct new plutonium pits. This TRU waste will require timely removal from the site and
shipment to WIPP.
62GAO,  Nuclear Waste Cleanup: DOE Could Improve Program and Project Management
by Better Classifying Work and Following Leading Practices, GAO-19-223 (Washington,
D.C.: Feb. 19, 2019).




Page 41                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
              executing the projects necessary to avoid an interruption to waste
              disposal operations. However, by developing a plan for mitigating the
              potential impacts of the risk to DOE’s TRU waste cleanup program posed
              by a potential interruption to waste disposal operations at WIPP, DOE will
              be better able to effectively address the consequences if such an
              interruption occurs.

              WIPP—the United States’ only repository for the disposal of TRU waste
Conclusions   generated by DOE’s nuclear weapons research and production—has not
              returned to full disposal operations since accidents in 2014 and faces
              long-term issues with ensuring sufficient physical space and statutory
              capacity to dispose of DOE’s inventory of TRU waste. DOE has taken
              steps to address each of these issues, including initiating two capital
              asset projects, developing plans for adding additional physical space, and
              revising the method it uses to calculate TRU waste. However, DOE is
              encountering challenges with completing the two capital asset projects
              and, because of vacancies, DOE’s CBFO may not have sufficient staff to
              address these challenges. While DOE has attempted to fill vacancies by
              offering pay and relocation incentives, it has not identified and fully
              analyzed which additional flexibilities it could use. By identifying and fully
              analyzing additional flexibilities it could use to address the vacancy issue
              at CBFO, DOE will be in a better position to recruit and retain the
              workforce it needs to effectively address the challenges DOE officials
              identified in managing and overseeing projects at WIPP.

              DOE developed an Integrated Master Schedule for WIPP that estimates
              that the first new panel of its planned additional physical space will be
              completed prior to an interruption to waste disposal operations. However,
              the Integrated Master Schedule is not reliable because it does not
              sufficiently follow best practices to at least substantially meet all four
              characteristics of a reliable schedule estimate. By making improvements
              to the Integrated Master Schedule so that it sufficiently follows best
              practices to at least substantially meet the four characteristics of a reliable
              schedule, DOE can better ensure that its estimate for completing
              additional physical space at WIPP before an interruption to waste
              disposal operations is reliable.

              Additionally, DOE faces several key schedule risks for completing the first
              new panel of the additional physical space at WIPP by 2025, which could
              impact DOE’s TRU waste cleanup program at multiple sites across the
              country. However, DOE has not developed a plan for mitigating the
              potential impacts of the risks to DOE’s TRU waste cleanup program from
              an interruption to waste disposal operations. By developing a plan for


              Page 42                                          GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                      mitigating the potential impacts of the risk to DOE’s TRU waste cleanup
                      program posed by a potential interruption to waste disposal operations at
                      WIPP, DOE will be better able to effectively address these impacts if such
                      an interruption occurs.

                      We are making the following three recommendations to DOE:
Recommendations for
Executive Action      The Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management should identify
                      and fully analyze what additional flexibilities could be used to address the
                      staffing vacancies at CBFO. (Recommendation 1)

                      The Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management should ensure
                      that the WIPP Integrated Master Schedule is updated so that it sufficiently
                      follows best practices to at least substantially meet the four
                      characteristics of a reliable schedule. (Recommendation 2)

                      The Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management should develop a
                      plan for mitigating the potential impacts of the risks to DOE’s TRU waste
                      cleanup program posed by a potential interruption to waste disposal
                      operations at WIPP. (Recommendation 3)

                      We provided a draft of this report to DOE and EPA for comment. In its
Agency Comments       comments, reproduced in appendix III, DOE concurred with our three
and Our Evaluation    recommendations, including addressing vacancies at CBFO, updating the
                      WIPP Integrated Master Schedule so that its follows schedule estimating
                      best practices, and preparing a plan in collaboration with TRU waste
                      generator sites to mitigate potential impacts from an interruption to
                      disposal operations at WIPP. EPA did not provide written comments on
                      the draft report, and both DOE and EPA provided technical comments,
                      which we incorporated as appropriate.

                      We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate congressional
                      committees, the Secretary of Energy, and other interested parties. In
                      addition, this report is available at no charge on the GAO website at
                      http://www.gao.gov.




                      Page 43                                        GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
If you or your staff have any questions about this report, please contact
me at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov. Contact points for our
Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on
the last page of this report. GAO staff who made significant contributions
to this report are listed in appendix IV.




Allison B. Bawden
Director, Natural Resources and Environment




Page 44                                       GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
List of Committees

The Honorable James M. Inhofe
Chairman
The Honorable Jack Reed
Ranking Member
Committee on Armed Services
United States Senate

The Honorable Lamar Alexander
Chairman
The Honorable Dianne Feinstein
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development
Committee on Appropriations
United States Senate

The Honorable Adam Smith
Chairman
The Honorable Mac Thornberry
Ranking Member
Committee on Armed Services
House of Representatives

The Honorable Marcy Kaptur
Chairwoman
The Honorable Mike Simpson
Ranking Member
Subcommittee on Energy, Water Development, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
House of Representatives




Page 45                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
              Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
              Methodology


Methodology

              Our report examined (1) the extent to which the Department of Energy’s
              (DOE) long-term plans for meeting its transuranic (TRU) waste disposal
              needs include sufficient physical space at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
              (WIPP) without exceeding the facility’s statutory capacity, (2) the
              challenges DOE identified to completing the capital asset projects needed
              to return WIPP to full disposal operations, and (3) the extent to which
              DOE’s plans for adding physical space at WIPP provide assurance that
              this additional capacity will be completed without an interruption to waste
              disposal operations.

              To address all three objectives, we conducted a site visit to WIPP in June
              2019. During the site visit, we obtained documentation and interviewed
              officials from DOE’s Carlsbad Field Office (CBFO), which manages and
              oversees WIPP operations under DOE’s Office of Environmental
              Management. To better understand the status of DOE’s progress on the
              capital asset projects and adding physical space, we obtained design
              documents for the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System and
              the Utility Shaft and DOE’s analysis of alternatives for adding physical
              space at WIPP. We also interviewed representatives from Nuclear Waste
              Partnership LLC, which is the contractor that manages and operates
              WIPP for DOE. In addition, we toured the WIPP site and observed
              ongoing construction of the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation
              System and site preparation work for the Utility Shaft.

              To examine the extent to which DOE’s long-term plans for meeting its
              TRU waste disposal needs include sufficient physical space at WIPP
              without exceeding the facility’s statutory capacity, we reviewed
              documentation and data on DOE’s revised TRU waste volume counting
              method and DOE documentation on the development of additional
              physical space at WIPP. To understand the legal requirements governing
              TRU waste disposal at WIPP and the facility’s statutory capacity, we
              reviewed the WIPP Land Withdrawal Act and DOE’s Annual TRU Waste
              Inventory Report, which documents how DOE tracks waste volumes
              against the statutory capacity. We reviewed the documents DOE
              submitted to the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) on the
              modification to WIPP’s permit to allow for the change in volume counting
              to determine how the change would be measured, recorded, and reported
              under the new counting method. Specifically, to assess the impact of the
              revised counting method on current and projected TRU waste totals, we
              reviewed data collected for the fiscal year 2018 DOE Annual TRU Waste
              Inventory Report from DOE’s Comprehensive Inventory Database and
              Waste Data System on the volume and quantities of TRU waste
              containers already disposed of at WIPP and expected to be disposed of


              Page 46                                       GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




there in the future. 1 Specifically, we looked at the number of containers of
each type that had been disposed of in WIPP as of December 2017 and
volumes of the inner and outer containers for each type of package. Each
container type has a standard volume set by DOE. We also performed
the same analysis with data on containers of waste estimated by DOE
sites that were projected to come to WIPP. 2 Data from the 2018 inventory
report was the most currently available at the time of our analysis. 3

We assessed the reliability of the data used to develop this report by
reviewing manuals and procedures for the databases provided by DOE
and interviewed DOE officials responsible for managing the databases to
understand what procedures they had in place to ensure the data and the
output they provided to us was reliable. From these reviews and
interviews, we found the data were reliable for the purpose of reporting on
the change to the volume counting method and determining whether DOE
has sufficient statutory capacity for its inventory of TRU waste. However,
we note that the data regarding the estimated volumes of TRU waste
expected to come to WIPP in the future have some level of uncertainty.
For example, DOE officials stated that the actual volume of waste that is
disposed of at WIPP in the future may be higher than their current
estimates, in some cases due to circumstances that DOE cannot predict,
such as the need to repackage certain stored wastes into multiple
containers and thereby increase the total volume of waste. Additionally, a
DOE official told us that the actual volume of waste disposed of at WIPP
could be lower than what they currently estimate in certain cases because
they are working on minimizing the volumes of TRU waste produced in
the future by, for example, developing more efficient waste packaging
processes. DOE annually updates its estimates on the volume of waste
expected to be disposed of at WIPP in the future. On our site visit to
WIPP, we interviewed DOE officials responsible for managing WIPP
operations to understand how they were implementing the revised TRU

1Information on the volume and quantities of TRU waste containers expected to be
disposed of in WIPP are based on waste estimates reported by DOE TRU waste
generator sites as of December 31, 2017. These sites were asked to report the most
comprehensive TRU inventory estimate available projected through calendar year 2050,
and additional estimates beyond 2050, if available.
2The 2018 Annual TRU Waste Inventory Report includes estimated volumes for stored
and newly generated TRU waste between 2018 and 2062.
3We did not evaluate the changes in estimated TRU waste volumes in the 2019 Annual
TRU Waste Inventory Report because our data reliability analysis used data from the
2018 report.




Page 47                                              GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




waste volume counting method, as well as how this new counting method
affects the likelihood that DOE will reach WIPP’s statutory capacity in
disposing of current and estimated future TRU waste.

To understand DOE’s planning for new physical capacity, we reviewed
DOE’s analysis of alternatives and initial draft conceptual design
documentation that outlined its ongoing planning for the additional
physical space at WIPP as well as plans for disposing of remote-handled
waste at WIPP. We interviewed officials from Sandia National
Laboratory’s Carlsbad Office regarding their involvement in the design
and regulatory approval process for the additional physical space. 4 We
also interviewed officials from DOE’s CBFO about the status of DOE’s
planning and officials from NMED and the Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) regarding their oversight of DOE’s efforts to address the
statutory capacity and physical space issues at WIPP, respectively. In
addition, to understand the process for renewing and modifying the
hazardous waste disposal and storage permit for WIPP, we spoke to
officials from NMED’s Hazardous Waste Bureau. We also spoke with
EPA officials to understand EPA’s process for certification of WIPP as
complying with EPA’s waste disposal regulations. Furthermore, to
understand what wastes were not included in DOE’s inventory but may
come to WIPP in the future, we (1) reviewed our 2017 report that
analyzed this issue, (2) reviewed the National Nuclear Security
Administration’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Plutonium Pit
Production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, and (3)
interviewed CBFO officials regarding whether any additional wastes we
had not yet accounted for should be included. 5

To examine challenges DOE has identified to completing the capital asset
projects needed to return WIPP to full disposal operations and the extent
to which DOE has the staff necessary to address these challenges, we
reviewed DOE documents that established the cost and schedule
baselines at Critical Decision 3 for the two capital asset projects to

4Sandia’s Carlsbad Office provides certain scientific expertise to DOE’s Carlsbad Field
Office, most notably by developing the performance assessments that demonstrate to
EPA that WIPP’s long-term performance remains in compliance with applicable
regulations.
5GAO, Proposed Dilute and Dispose Approach Highlights Need for More Work at the
Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, GAO-17-390 (Washington, D.C.: September 2017). National
Nuclear Security Administration, Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Plutonium Pit
Production at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina, (Washington, D.C.: Sep. 2020).




Page 48                                                 GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




identify the scope, cost, and schedule estimates. 6 We reviewed planning
documents for the two capital asset projects and interviewed DOE
officials managing the projects to determine the primary challenges and
risks to completing each project on time and within budget and to
determine whether DOE had identified sufficient risk mitigation strategies.
To understand how DOE defines full disposal operations, we interviewed
CBFO officials about how they defined limited and full disposal
operations, and they told us they based this on weekly TRU waste
shipping rates. We then reviewed information from DOE’s Integrated
Master Schedule that allowed us to understand what the weekly shipping
rates had been since 2018 and what DOE was projecting it would achieve
in the future.

We reviewed DOE’s CBFO 2019 Workforce Analysis and 5-Year
Workforce Plan (2020-2024) to identify staffing levels at CBFO as of fiscal
year 2019, whether DOE considers current staffing levels to be sufficient
to support the multiple ongoing activities at WIPP, and what strategies
DOE is suggesting for addressing workforce gaps at CBFO. Because the
workforce plan identified staffing gaps at CBFO, we also reviewed the
plan and interviewed DOE officials to identify whether DOE had
developed hiring strategies, including the use of flexibilities and other
human capital strategies and tools, and considered how these strategies
could be used to eliminate gaps. We reported in 2003 that developing
such a hiring strategy was a key principle for effective strategic workforce
planning. 7 In addition, we interviewed senior officials at CBFO and DOE
headquarters to determine whether key positions at CBFO have been
consistently filled, what efforts have been made to fill vacant positions,
and any future plans they have to address staffing challenges. We
analyzed past data on vacancies at CBFO for fiscal years 2010-2020 to
determine staffing levels during this time frame. We selected this time
frame because it provided us data on vacancies from prior to the 2014
accidents at WIPP and the subsequent increase in staffing levels at
CBFO up to the current fiscal year. We assessed the reliability of this data
by interviewing relevant officials and reviewing documentation. We




6Under  DOE Order 413.3B, Critical Decision 3 is the point where a project begins
construction. Department of Energy, Program and Project Management for the Acquisition
of Capital Assets, DOE Order 413.3B (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 20, 2016).
7GAO,Human Capital: Key Principles for Effective Strategic Workforce Planning,
GAO-04-39 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 11, 2003).




Page 49                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




determined that the data were reliable for reporting on the number of
vacancies at CBFO over the last decade.

To examine the extent to which DOE’s plans for adding physical space at
WIPP provide assurance that this disposal space will be completed
without an interruption to waste disposal operations, we conducted an
analysis of WIPP’s Integrated Master Schedule—which integrates the
schedule estimates for the construction projects, the plans for adding
physical space, and ongoing WIPP operations—to determine whether it
meets best practices found in our Schedule Assessment Guide. 8 We
selected this schedule because it outlines the activities that are necessary
to complete additional physical space without an interruption to waste
disposal operations. In analyzing a schedule estimate against best
practices in GAO’s schedule guide, we examined four characteristics,
each defined by multiple criteria:

•   comprehensive,
•   well-constructed,
•   credible, and
•   controlled.

For this review, we assessed the WIPP Integrated Master Schedule that
DOE updated as of January 2020 against each of these four criteria. 9
Additionally, we reviewed DOE documentation on the schedule risks that
had been identified and any mitigation plans that had been developed to
respond to those risks. We also interviewed officials from NMED and EPA
to obtain their views on the viability of DOE’s schedule for completing
additional physical space.

We conducted this performance audit from April 2019 to November 2020
in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that



8GAO,GAO Schedule Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Project Schedules,
GAO-16-89G (Washington, D.C.: December 2015).
9DOE  is in the process of updating its schedule based on the impact of Coronavirus
Disease 2019 and subsequent reductions in regular operations at WIPP.




Page 50                                                GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix I: Objectives, Scope, and
Methodology




the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
conclusions based on our audit objectives.




Page 51                                      GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix II: Assessment of DOE’s
              Appendix II: Assessment of DOE’s Integrated
              Master Schedule for WIPP Compared with Best
              Practices

Integrated Master Schedule for WIPP
Compared with Best Practices
              Table 2 below summarizes the results of our assessment of the
              Department of Energy’s (DOE) Integrated Master Schedule for the Waste
              Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) compared to industry best practices for
              developing a schedule estimate published in the GAO Schedule
              Assessment Guide. 1 A high-quality, reliable schedule has four
              characteristics: it is comprehensive, well-constructed, credible, and
              controlled. Overall, DOE’s schedule substantially met two of the four
              characteristics of a high-quality schedule—comprehensive and
              controlled—and partially met the other two characteristics—well-
              constructed and credible. A schedule estimate is considered reliable if the
              assessment for each of the four characteristics are substantially or fully
              met. If any of the characteristics are not met, minimally met, or partially
              met, then the schedule estimate does not fully reflect the characteristics
              of a high-quality schedule and cannot be considered reliable.




              1GAO,GAO Schedule Assessment Guide: Best Practices for Project Schedules,
              GAO-16-89G (Washington, D.C.: December 2015).




              Page 52                                           GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                                           Appendix II: Assessment of DOE’s Integrated
                                           Master Schedule for WIPP Compared with Best
                                           Practices




Table 2: Assessment of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Integrated Master Schedule for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
(WIPP) Compared with Industry Best Practices

Best practice characteristic
and overall assessment       Best practice                     Detailed assessmenta
Comprehensive:               Capturing all activities          Substantially Met. The Integrated Master Schedule contains
Substantially Met                                              activities for both DOE and its contractor that are necessary to
                                                               accomplish the program’s objectives. The Integrated Master
                                                               Schedule also contains schedule risk mitigation activities. All
                                                               activities have a work breakdown structure element assigned, but
                                                               the work breakdown structure documentation provided did not
                                                               contain all the elements that were assigned within the schedule.
                             Assigning resources to all        Fully Met. The Integrated Master Schedule includes the labor,
                             activities                        materials, travel, facilities, and equipment resources needed to do
                                                               the work and depicts when those resources are needed. We found
                                                               resources were assigned to 93 percent of the activities remaining to
                                                               be completed. Officials explained that majority of activities within the
                                                               capital projects and infrastructure projects are performed by
                                                               subcontractors under firm fixed-price contracts. Therefore, the
                                                               contractor, Nuclear Waste Partnership, leaves it to the
                                                               subcontractors to determine how to properly level the resources in
                                                               the cases where activities are not completed on schedule.
                             Establishing the durations of     Substantially Met. DOE has a process in place to ensure that
                             all activities                    activity durations in the Integrated Master Schedule are realistic and
                                                               that they allow for discrete progress measurement. However, there
                                                               were instances in which activities have long durations but were not
                                                               marked as level-of-effort in portions of the Integrated Master
                                                               Schedule covering the capital asset projects.
Well-constructed:            Sequencing all activities         Partially Met. DOE officials reported that logical relationships
Partially Met                                                  between activities have been determined by those executing the
                                                               program. Further, we found that the majority of activities within the
                                                               detailed schedules were logically linked, and relationships within the
                                                               detailed schedules were finish-to-start, meaning that the network
                                                               logic is generally straightforward. However, we found about 4
                                                               percent of remaining activities had dangling logic or logic that is not
                                                               properly tied to activity start or end dates. In addition, we found
                                                               instances of high convergence, where activities or milestones have
                                                               many predecessors. Convergence should be a key program
                                                               management concern because the risk at the merge point is
                                                               multiplicative.




                                           Page 53                                                  GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                                          Appendix II: Assessment of DOE’s Integrated
                                          Master Schedule for WIPP Compared with Best
                                          Practices




Best practice characteristic
and overall assessment       Best practice                     Detailed assessmenta
                             Confirming that the critical      Partially Met. The Integrated Master Schedule includes a critical
                             path is valid                     path for each of its three projects. However, we found issues on the
                                                               paths that may reduce management’s ability to monitor key activities
                                                               that can delay the program. For example, the critical paths for the
                                                               general WIPP operations project consisted solely of three long-
                                                               duration activities. According to best practices, long-duration
                                                               activities should be reevaluated to determine if they can be broken
                                                               down into more manageable pieces, particularly if they appear on
                                                               the critical path. In addition, the critical path for the Safety Significant
                                                               Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) schedule does not begin
                                                               at the status date. The critical path should be a continuous
                                                               sequence of activities from the schedule status date to the finish
                                                               milestone to create a complete picture of the project from start to
                                                               finish.
                             Ensuring reasonable total float   Partially Met. The Integrated Master Schedule has a maximum total
                                                               float of 454 days and a minimum total float of -187 days, with 26
                                                               percent of remaining activities having total float greater than 2
                                                               working months. DOE officials reported that total float is monitored
                                                               and management has plans to mitigate negative total float.
                                                               However, the float levels in the Integrated Master Schedule likely do
                                                               not represent the actual degree of flexibility in the schedule.
                                                               Because float dictates the criticality of activities, incorrect float
                                                               estimates will result in an invalid critical path.
Credible:                    Verifying that the schedule is    Partially Met. We found that the schedule was not fully horizontally
Partially Met                traceable horizontally and        traceable because of logic and total float issues. For example, some
                             vertically                        activities would need to be delayed hundreds of days to affect the
                                                               dates of successor activities. The schedule is generally vertically
                                                               traceable—that is, dates were consistent between various levels of
                                                               the schedule and management documentation. However, we were
                                                               unable to verify that all key milestones are included in the schedule.
                             Conducting a schedule risk        Partially Met. Support documentation shows that a schedule risk
                             analysis                          analysis was performed to determine the confidence level in
                                                               achieving the program schedule for the Utility Shaft project, but the
                                                               SSCVS risk analysis was outdated and analysis was not performed
                                                               on the general WIPP operations project. Without the analysis
                                                               models, we were unable to verify that risk inputs are traceable from
                                                               the documentation to the risk analysis. In addition, if the schedule
                                                               risk analyses are to be valid, the program’s schedule must reflect
                                                               reliable logic and clearly identify the critical paths. If the schedule
                                                               does not follow best practices, confidence in the schedule risk
                                                               analysis results will be lacking.
Controlled:                  Updating the schedule with        Substantially Met. Schedule progress and logic in the Integrated
Substantially Met            actual progress and logic         Master Schedule are updated weekly by trained officials and
                                                               reported monthly to DOE management. At least one activity on the
                                                               critical path is currently in progress for two of the three projects in
                                                               the Integrated Master Schedule. However, there is no evidence that
                                                               a schedule narrative accompanies each schedule status update.
                                                               Good documentation helps with analyzing changes in the program
                                                               schedule and identifying the reasons for variances.




                                          Page 54                                                    GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
                                                                    Appendix II: Assessment of DOE’s Integrated
                                                                    Master Schedule for WIPP Compared with Best
                                                                    Practices




 Best practice characteristic
 and overall assessment       Best practice                                                         Detailed assessmenta
                                                 Maintaining a baseline                             Substantially Met. The Integrated Master Schedule includes
                                                 schedule                                           baseline schedules for each of the three projects. DOE officials
                                                                                                    reported that the schedule margin for the capital projects is
                                                                                                    managed through a change control process in which changes to the
                                                                                                    baseline schedules are reviewed and approved according to this
                                                                                                    process. DOE officials stated that while they had not yet analyzed
                                                                                                    trends in already completed Integrated Master Schedule activities,
                                                                                                    they are currently establishing this analysis capability.
Source: GAO analysis of WIPP’s Integrated Master Schedule. | GAO-21-48
aThe  ratings we used in this analysis are as follows: “Not met” means DOE provided no evidence that satisfies the best practice. “Minimally met” means DOE provided evidence that satisfies a small
portion of the best practice. “Partially met” means DOE provided evidence that satisfies about half of the best practice. “Substantially met” means DOE provided evidence that satisfies a large portion of
the best practice. “Met” means DOE provided complete evidence that satisfies the entire best practice.




                                                                    Page 55                                                                               GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix III: Comments from the
                   Appendix III: Comments from the Department
                   of Energy


Department of Energy




         Page 56                                                GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
          Appendix III: Comments from the Department
          of Energy




Page 57                                                GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
Appendix IV: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Appendix IV: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Acknowledgments


Acknowledgments

                  Allison B. Bawden, (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov
GAO Contact
                  In addition to the contact named above, Amanda K. Kolling (Assistant
Staff             Director), Eli Lewine (Analyst in Charge), Whitney Allen, Lauren
Acknowledgments   Mosteller, and Muhammad Safavi made key contributions to this report.
                  Also contributing to this report were Mark Braza, Juaná Collymore, Ellen
                  Fried, Gwendolyn Kirby, Katrina Pekar-Carpenter, Danny Royer, Jeanette
                  Soares, David Trimble, and Doris Yanger.




(103487)
                  Page 58                                     GAO-21-48 Nuclear Waste Disposal
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