Nuclear Waste Cleanup: Progress Made but DOE Management Attention Needed to Increase Use of Innovative Technologies

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1999-05-26.

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

                    United States General Accounting Office

GAO                 Testimony
                    Before the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations,
                    Committee on Commerce, House of Representatives

For Release
on Delivery
Expected at
                    NUCLEAR WASTE
9:30 a.m. EDT
Wednesday           CLEANUP
May 26, 1999

                    Progress Made but DOE
                    Management Attention
                    Needed to Increase Use of
                    Innovative Technologies
                    Statement of Ms. Gary L. Jones, Associate Director
                    Energy, Resources, and Science Issues
                    Resources, Community, and Economic
                    Development Division

    Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

    I am pleased to be here today to discuss the Department of Energy’s (DOE)
    progress in using the innovative technologies it has developed for cleaning
    up the hazardous and radioactive contaminants at its sites. These sites
    present environmental and human health concerns as a result of 50 years
    of nuclear weapons research, testing, and production activities. Since
    1990, DOE has received about $2.7 billion for developing innovative cleanup
    technologies and has initiated over 800 projects. According to DOE’s data,
    179 of the technologies have been deployed at DOE’s sites, 100 of which
    have been used only once.1 Our September 1998 report to this Committee
    made several recommendations to address DOE management problems that
    presented obstacles to selecting and using innovative technologies.2 The
    potential benefits of innovative technologies to reduce costs or speed
    cleanups cannot be realized unless these obstacles are overcome.

    Our testimony is primarily based on our 1998 report and on DOE’s actions
    in response to our recommendations. For this hearing, you asked us to
    follow up on DOE’s responses to our 1998 findings and recommendations
    on (1) coordination between technology developers and users,
    (2) modifying completed technologies to meet site-specific needs,
    (3) technical assistance to sites concerning innovative technologies, and
    (4) the quality of data on deployment. In addition, you asked us to
    determine what information is maintained and made available to sites on
    the vendor companies for the cleanup technologies that DOE has
    developed. In summary, we found the following:

•   As we reported in 1998, a key obstacle to deploying innovative
    technologies has been the lack of coordination between the technology
    developers in DOE’s Office of Science and Technology (OST) and the end
    users of technologies at DOE’s cleanup sites. As a result, some technologies
    have not met users’ requirements. Since our report, OST has begun several
    actions to improve coordination between technology developers and
    users, such as setting its priorities according to the users’ stated
    technology needs. However, OST is still not using the decision-making
    system it developed that requires user involvement during development
    and user commitment before investing in demonstrating a technology.
    Rather, OST is using elements of this system in its annual project reviews.
    Although these reviews have benefits, they are being implemented

     Figures are from DOE’s data as of May 1999, some of which has not been verified.
     Nuclear Waste: Further Actions Needed to Increase the Use of Innovative Cleanup Technologies
    (GAO/RCED-98-249, Sept. 25, 1998).

    Page 1                                                                        GAO/T-RCED-99-190
    inconsistently and they may not provide enough management attention to
    developer and user cooperation as a technology progresses though
    development phases. More assurance may be needed that users will
    ultimately deploy the technologies being pursued and that a specific
    “go/no-go” decision is made before substantial investments are made.

•   Our 1998 report noted that some OST-developed technologies were too
    generic to be readily implemented at sites and that responsibilities and
    funding sources for modifying technologies to meet site-specific needs
    were unclear. DOE cites its Accelerated Site Technology Deployment
    program as addressing these concerns. This program provides funding to
    DOE sites for their first use of an innovative technology developed by OST or
    other organizations. However, the program funds only a limited number of
    projects and funding does not necessarily have to be used for
    modifications. More could be done to proactively promote OST’s
    technologies by identifying potential applications and alternative DOE
    funding for modifications, if needed.

•   We found that the technical expertise of OST’s focus areas varied and that
    site officials were sometimes reluctant to consult with them.3 As a result,
    cleanup sites were not consistently getting technical assistance to identify
    alternative solutions to cleanup problems. OST is currently establishing
    lead national laboratories for each of its focus areas to increase its level of
    expertise. Since OST is still defining the role of the lead laboratories, it is
    too early to assess the impact of this change on improving expertise.
    Furthermore, without requiring that an OST representative participate in
    technology selection, as we recommended, it is unclear whether improving
    focus areas’ expertise alone will result in more consultations with sites.

•   In our 1998 report, we found that OST’s data on the deployment of its
    technologies were of poor quality. Specifically, we found that, in
    deployment instances claimed from the start of the program through
    January 1998, 38 percent should not have been counted as deployments.
    The most common type of error we found was counting technology
    demonstrations that did not result in cleanup progress as deployments. OST
    has since conducted a study that verified the deployments reported for
    fiscal years 1997 and 1998 and has taken several steps to improve the
    quality of data input such as issuing a definition of deployment. However,
    the data being entered into OST’s database continue to have a high degree
    of errors with only about half of the deployments being correct as listed in

     OST has five focus areas that manage technology development projects for the major cleanup
    problems that DOE faces, such as radioactive tank waste remediation.

    Page 2                                                                       GAO/T-RCED-99-190
                 the database. OST plans to hire consultants to help identify the causes of
                 poor data quality and recommend improved approaches. If, as a result of
                 its study, OST develops and systematically implements an approach for
                 ensuring the accuracy of its data, the quality of deployment data needed to
                 manage the program may improve.

             •   Finally, OST’s database, which is available to end users at sites, generally
                 contains information to allow sites to identify and contact vendors.
                 However, these data can become out of date because companies move,
                 merge, sell their patents, or make other changes. OST plans to improve the
                 information on vendors in its database by, for example, linking
                 information in the database with credit for deployment.

                 The Office of Science and Technology, which is within DOE’s Office of
Background       Environmental Management (EM), develops new technologies that could
                 accelerate cleanup, reduce costs, reduce risks to cleanup workers, or
                 enable cleanup activities for which no cost-effective technologies exist.
                 For fiscal years 1990 through 1999, the Congress provided a total of
                 approximately $2.7 billion for the development of innovative cleanup
                 technologies, and OST has initiated over 800 development projects.

                 OST is currently organized into five focus areas for specific remediation
                 activities: mixed waste characterization, treatment, and disposal;
                 radioactive tank waste remediation; subsurface contaminants;
                 deactivation and decommissioning; and nuclear materials. The focus areas
                 were established in 1994 to concentrate OST’s resources on each of the
                 major cleanup problems that DOE faces. A field office that is responsible
                 for the day-to-day management of technology development projects leads
                 each focus area. For example, the Savannah River Operations Office
                 manages the subsurface contaminants focus area, and the Richland
                 Operations Office manages the radioactive tank waste remediation focus
                 area. The focus areas use DOE’s national laboratories, private companies
                 under contract to OST, and universities to conduct technology research and
                 development projects.

                 Although OST is responsible for technology development, DOE’s waste sites
                 are responsible for selecting the technologies they will use, with the
                 review and approval of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and
                 state agencies that regulate DOE’s cleanups and with input from the public

                 Page 3                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-190
                        involved with the site.4 Each DOE field office has established site
                        technology coordination groups to identify sites’ technology needs,
                        provide OST and its focus areas with information, and communicate
                        information about OST’s technology development projects to the cleanup

                        In our 1998 report, we found that OST was not sufficiently involving end
Actions Needed to       users during the development of new technologies. As a result, no
Increase Coordination   customers have been identified for some of the technologies that OST has
Between Technology      sponsored. Of the 171 technologies that OST had completed as of
                        March 1999, 59 technologies, costing about $76 million to develop, have
Developers and End      not been used by DOE cleanup sites.5 Although OST developed a
Users                   decision-making system in 1997 that would provide for users’ involvement
                        in projects during the development process, the agency was not
                        consistently using this system, known as the gates system. The gates
                        system identifies seven stages of the technology development process:
                        basic research, applied research, exploratory development, advanced
                        development, engineering development, demonstration, and
                        implementation. The gates are decision points preceding each stage. The
                        gates system includes requirements such as identifying specific user
                        needs, defining users’ performance requirements, and before investing in a
                        demonstration, obtaining users’ commitments to deploy the technology if
                        it meets the performance requirements. OST designed the gates system to
                        provide its focus areas with a process and criteria for making “go/no-go”
                        decisions at various points during a project’s development. One reason
                        why the gates system has not been extensively used was that it would lead
                        to the termination of some technology projects, an outcome resisted by
                        the focus areas and national laboratories. We recommended that OST
                        rigorously and consistently use its gates system as a decision-making tool
                        for managing its projects and as a vehicle for increasing cooperation
                        between developers and users.

                        OST did not implement our recommendation. The Acting Deputy Assistant
                        Secretary for OST told us that the office needed to determine how best to
                        implement the gates system and whom to involve in the gates system
                        reviews. However, OST has incorporated elements of the gates system in its

                         Remediation activities at DOE’s facilities are governed by the Comprehensive Environmental
                        Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, as amended, and the Resource Conservation and
                        Recovery Act of 1976, as amended. These acts lay out the requirements for identifying waste sites,
                        studying the extent of their contamination and identifying possible remedies, and involving the public
                        in making decisions about the sites.
                         Figures are from OST data as of March 1999.

                        Page 4                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-99-190
existing project reviews. Specifically, in March 1999, the Acting Deputy
Assistant Secretary issued a memorandum directing the focus areas to use
the major criteria from the gates system in annual assessments of their
projects, known as midyear reviews. The midyear reviews address the
progress of each project, the importance and feasibility of the technologies
under development, the development stage of the project, and whether it
has met the requirements in the gates system for that stage of
development. The memo states that end users should be involved in the
reviews and that focus areas should address the question, “Has an end
user made a commitment to implement the technology?” The
requirements in the gates system, however, are more specific. For
instance, end users’ performance requirements must be incorporated
before the project enters the advanced development stage. The Acting
Deputy Assistant Secretary told us that he considers the midyear review
guidance to be a first step in fully implementing the gates system.

We have some initial concerns about what has been implemented to date.
We reviewed criteria that four of the focus areas had developed for their
midyear review panels to use.6 Only one of the focus areas—deactivation
and decommissioning—linked the review criteria to the development
stage of the project, as the gates system does. This focus area provided
reviewers with different sets of questions for projects in basic science
research, applied development, demonstration, and deployment stages. We
also note that, unlike the other three focus areas, the radioactive tank
waste remediation focus area did not review all of its projects, but only
those that were about to be demonstrated or deployed, or that had
concerns identified at previous reviews.

While using some of the gates system criteria in the midyear reviews may
be beneficial, we do not believe that the midyear reviews provide enough
management attention to help ensure developer and user interaction and
cooperation as a technology progresses though development phases. A
fully implemented gates system could provide more assurance that the
technologies being pursued are needed and will ultimately be deployed by
users and that a specific “go/no-go” decision is made before substantial
investments are made.

DOE has taken some other actions to better integrate the needs and
technical requirements of end users into its technology development
projects. For example, EM has set up user steering committees to advise

 Three focus areas have held their reviews, but as of May 10, 1999, review reports were not yet
available. A fourth focus area plans to hold its midyear review during the last week of May 1999, while
the fifth focus area does not plan a midyear review this year.

Page 5                                                                          GAO/T-RCED-99-190
                       each of OST’s focus areas, which carry out the development and
                       demonstration of technologies. The user steering committees help focus
                       areas develop their program plans. In addition, beginning with its fiscal
                       year 2000 budget submission, OST used a new priority-ranking system for
                       its program that analyzed sites’ data on their specific cleanup projects and
                       needs. The new priority-ranking system used information that sites
                       generated for DOE’s Accelerating Cleanup: Paths to Closure strategy7 rather
                       than information generated by OST personnel. Priorities for OST’s fiscal year
                       2000 funding decisions were based on factors such as the number and
                       costs of DOE’s cleanup projects that could benefit from the proposed
                       technology development work, the degree to which the proposed work
                       addresses the technology needs of the sites, and whether sites plan to
                       deploy the resulting technologies. OST plans to continue using this
                       user-based priority system. According to OST officials, the system
                       encourages the focus areas to work more closely with end users at sites to
                       identify work that will meet their needs. These initiatives move the
                       program in the right direction. However, these initiatives, like the midyear
                       reviews, also do not substitute for the full implementation of the gates
                       system. Continued attention by OST management and focus areas will be
                       needed to fully implement these initiatives and make developer-user
                       cooperation a routine part of doing business.

                       During our 1998 review, DOE field staff and contractor personnel
Identification of      responsible for cleanup told us that, in many cases, OST had developed
Responsibilities for   generic solutions that either do not meet specific site needs or must be
Modifying              modified before they could be used. Site officials told us that it was
                       unclear who was responsible for paying for the modifications to those
Technologies Is        technologies that could prove useful. For example, Hanford officials were
Needed                 interested in using OST’s Electrical Resistance Tomography to help detect
                       leaks in their high-level radioactive waste tanks. However, a Hanford
                       official said that the technology needed substantial fine-tuning to make it
                       work on the Hanford tanks and that no funding was available at the time.
                       In some cases, technology vendors have been willing to fund the necessary
                       modifications, but for some needs unique to a DOE site, the market may be
                       too small to elicit such an investment from vendors. We recommended
                       that OST identify the technologies that could be cost-effectively used to
                       meet sites’ needs and that EM identify funds for modification if needed.

                        Accelerating Cleanup: Paths to Closure is an annual report on EM’s strategy and progress in cleaning
                       up the remaining 53 contaminated sites. Its development requires sites to identify the scope of work,
                       time frames, and costs for each of the more than 350 projects at the cleanup sites.

                       Page 6                                                                         GAO/T-RCED-99-190
                        DOE has not addressed this recommendation. In its written response to our
                        report, DOE cited OST’s Accelerated Site Technology Deployment (ASTD)
                        program as addressing sites’ concerns about using new technologies. ASTD
                        provides DOE sites with funding for their first use of an innovative
                        technology developed by OST or other organizations. The program is
                        intended to increase the use of technologies that could speed cleanup or
                        reduce costs. OST competitively evaluates sites’ proposals for ASTD projects
                        to select projects to fund. Of the 46 ASTD projects that OST has funded to
                        date, 36 are using technologies developed by OST.8 The sites receiving ASTD
                        funds must also provide funding for implementing the technologies, and
                        ASTD funds are not targeted to specific purposes within the project, such as
                        paying for modifications to technologies.

                        While ASTD may have facilitated some deployments, OST could be more
                        proactive in identifying potential uses for its technologies and providing
                        sites with assistance in such cases. This is particularly important, given
                        that, of the 171 technologies that OST had completed by March 1999, 59
                        technologies—or more than 30 percent—have never been used by the
                        sites. Of the 112 completed technologies used by the sites, about half have
                        been used only once. Such proactive assistance might involve providing
                        information on OST’s technologies and technical advice or working with
                        the sites to arrange and share the costs of technology modifications, if
                        needed and cost-effective. These actions could identify additional
                        cost-effective uses for technologies that OST has already completed and
                        provide a greater return on past investments in the development of

                        In our 1998 review, we found that OST was not fulfilling its role of
Some Actions Have       providing users with the technical advice and assistance that they need to
Been Taken to           identify solutions to cleanup problems and to help implement those
Provide Sites With      solutions. Focus areas’ abilities to provide technical assistance varied, and
                        some site officials told us that they were reluctant to consult with the
Technical Assistance,   focus areas because they were not convinced of the focus areas’ technical
but Requirement Is      expertise. We recommended that OST increase the expertise available for
                        providing technical assistance on innovative technologies. We also
Still Lacking           recommended that EM require that an expert from OST participate in
                        technology selection processes for site cleanup projects.

                         In fiscal year 1998, OST provided $27 million in funding for the 14 ASTD projects selected from its
                        first call for proposals. In fiscal year 1999, OST is providing $16.8 million for 32 additional ASTD
                        projects selected from its second call for proposals, as well as $14.7 million for nine of the first
                        projects that continue into a second year. Another eight ASTD projects selected from the second call
                        for proposals are expected to begin in fiscal year 2000.

                        Page 7                                                                         GAO/T-RCED-99-190
DOE has taken some actions to implement our recommendation for
increasing technical expertise. Specifically, OST recently selected a lead
national laboratory for each of its focus areas. The purpose of establishing
the lead laboratories is to improve the technical expertise available to the
focus areas for assessing their technology development projects,
identifying promising basic research for further development, and
providing sites with technical assistance. With the exception of the
radioactive tank waste focus area, which has worked with a national
laboratory for several years, OST is currently in the process of defining the
roles and responsibilities for their lead laboratories.

It is too soon to tell whether establishing lead laboratories will result in
sites requesting technical assistance from OST more frequently. We note
that multiple objectives exist for the lead laboratories and it is unclear
whether technical assistance will receive adequate attention. In addition,
since each lead laboratory is involved in developing some OST
technologies, there is some question regarding their ability and willingness
to support and assist technologies developed by other laboratories or

EM  has not implemented our recommendation that experts from OST be
required to participate in sites’ technology selection processes. OST’s focus
areas have provided technical assistance for some technology decisions at
DOE’s sites but have not been routinely involved in all such decisions. For
example, the subsurface contaminants focus area participates with the
Office of Environmental Restoration in providing some DOE sites with
consultations on groundwater and soil cleanups, and the deactivation and
decommissioning focus area is participating in several value engineering
studies with sites. According to an OST official, the radioactive tank waste
focus area, assisted by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, has
given beneficial technical assistance and advice to several key decisions
for privatization projects at Hanford and Oak Ridge. In privatization
projects, DOE uses fixed-price contracts, and vendors are responsible for
identifying the technologies that they plan to use. Technical assistance can
help sites develop performance specifications for the contracts, according
to the Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for OST.

The Acting Assistant Secretary for EM told us that he believes a policy on
requiring OST’s involvement in technical decisions for sites would not be as
useful as other efforts, such as the ASTD program and integration teams
that are studying waste problems common to several sites and trying to
develop integrated responses to the problems. We believe that while

Page 8                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-190
                        technical assistance to sites may be increased by these activities and by
                        additional expertise in the focus areas, technical assistance is not
                        consistently being used to ensure that sites’ decisions are based on
                        well-informed consideration of the full range of available technology
                        alternatives. During our 1998 review, we found that sites infrequently
                        sought technical assistance from OST and its focus areas. In addition, ASTD
                        and the integration teams have dealt only with a relatively small number of
                        innovative technologies. As a result, DOE needs to do more to ensure that
                        OST’s technical assistance role is reinforced and made more routine.

                        Our 1998 report found that OST’s deployment data were of poor quality.
Process Is Needed to    Specifically, we found that, for deployment instances claimed from the
Ensure the Quality of   start of the program through January 1998, 38 percent should not have
Deployment Data         been counted as deployments. The most common type of error we found
                        was counting technology demonstrations that did not result in cleanup
                        progress as deployments. OST’s focus areas are responsible for obtaining
                        information about the use of OST-developed technologies at field sites and
                        for inputting the data into a central database. While our review was under
                        way, OST began to verify its deployment data for fiscal year 1997. We
                        recommended that OST verify the accuracy of future deployment data and
                        label the earlier data that had not been verified as an estimate.

                        Since our review, OST has completed a verification effort for deployments
                        that occurred in fiscal years 1997 and 1998, and DOE’s February 1999 report
                        on the deployment of innovative technology indicated that data from
                        earlier years had not been verified. OST verified its data through a
                        Technology Achievements Study, which used structured interviews with
                        DOE field sites and technology vendors to identify and obtain information
                        about the deployments at cleanup sites. OST corrected the errors found by
                        the Technology Achievements Study prior to publishing the deployment

                        OST’sverification of fiscal year 1998 data found that only about half of the
                        deployments were correct as listed in the database. Specifically,
                        18 percent of the deployments claimed should not have been counted as
                        deployments (compared with the 38 percent that we found), and 43
                        deployments had been omitted from the database. Other errors included
                        deployments that were recorded in the wrong year or that required major
                        changes to the information provided.

                        Page 9                                                      GAO/T-RCED-99-190
                        Several actions were taken during 1998 to improve the quality of the data.
                        In August 1998, OST issued a definition of deployment for its focus areas to
                        use in gathering and inputting deployment data. The definition emphasizes
                        that a deployment occurs only if the use of the technology furthers site
                        cleanup goals. OST also has site officials check deployment information
                        that focus areas have entered into OST’s database. This step occurs prior to
                        verification through the Technology Achievements Study. In addition,
                        beginning in 1998, focus areas have been required to fill out deployment
                        fact sheets about each claimed deployment. This requirement may help
                        focus areas to improve their knowledge about deployments and avoid
                        such errors as the reporting of deployments in the wrong year or wrong
                        location because the fact sheets require specific information about the site
                        and project where the technology was used and the identification of end

                        OST  officials told us that they plan to continue the Technology
                        Achievements Study in fiscal year 1999 but have not decided if this
                        approach will be followed in the future. OST is hiring consultants to
                        conduct a one-time independent check of deployment data for fiscal year
                        1998, study reasons for the poor quality of the data, and provide advice on
                        ways of improving data quality. If, as a result of this study, OST develops
                        and systematically implements an approach for ensuring the accuracy of
                        its data, the quality of deployment data may improve.

                        Private vendor companies generally provide the innovative technologies
Vendor Information Is   that are selected for use at DOE sites. Therefore, it is important that DOE’s
Generally Available     field and contractor personnel have access to information about the
for OST-Developed       vendors for OST-developed technologies. OST’s database, accessible to DOE
                        site personnel and the public, includes information on vendors. We
Technologies            reviewed vendor information in the database for the 171 technologies that
                        OST had completed as of March 1999. Thirty-three of the completed
                        technologies were not commercially available, leaving 138 technologies
                        that should have information for contacting vendors. For 122 of the 138
                        completed, commercially-available technologies (88 percent), OST’s
                        database included the basic information that site personnel would need to
                        contact a vendor—namely, the company’s name, a contact name, and a
                        phone number.9 According to OST officials, if the necessary information is
                        not in the database, site personnel can contact staff in OST’s focus areas to
                        obtain vendor information. We called focus area staff about 3 of the 16
                        completed technologies that lacked information for contacting vendors in

                         Some of the listings lacked other information, such as the company’s street address or fax number.

                        Page 10                                                                        GAO/T-RCED-99-190
           the database. The focus area staff provided three vendor contacts for two
           of these technologies and told us that the third technology is not currently
           commercially available. We then attempted to contact the three vendors
           with the information that the focus areas provided for the other two
           technologies. For one of the vendor contacts, the area code provided by
           the focus area was out-of-date. However, we were able to contact the three
           companies and confirmed that they are current vendors of the

           OST  officials told us that they plan to improve the vendor information in
           the database. First, OST plans to change its database so that the field for
           vendor information must be completed by focus area staff when they are
           preparing deployment fact sheets. If the vendor information is not
           complete, the focus area will not receive credit for the deployment.
           Second, the Technology Achievements Study obtains vendor information
           during its surveys that OST plans to put into its database. According to OST
           officials, vendor information changes frequently because companies may
           sell their patents, go out of business, relocate, or change the trade name of
           the technology. The manager of the Technology Achievements Study
           estimates that each year, 10 to 20 percent of the vendors may have some
           type of information change including new addresses or area codes and
           new contact points due to staff turnover or company mergers. If OST
           implements these two planned actions, it will have greater confidence that
           its information on vendors is complete and current.

           Mr. Chairman, this concludes my statement, and I would be pleased to
           respond to any questions the Subcommittee may have.

(141302)   Page 11                                                     GAO/T-RCED-99-190
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