Cleanup Overhaul | January 7, 2008 Issue - Vol. 86 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 86 Issue 1 | p. 20
Issue Date: January 7, 2008

Cleanup Overhaul

Independent oversight panel urges a big jump in DOE nuclear weapons waste cleanup staff
Department: Government & Policy
Cleanup of DOE weapons facilities, such as the Hanford Site in Washington, will cost billions of dollars and take many decades.
Credit: Jeff Johnson/C&EN
Cleanup of DOE weapons facilities, such as the Hanford Site in Washington, will cost billions of dollars and take many decades.
Credit: Jeff Johnson/C&EN

FAR TOO FEW federal employees are managing the Department of Energy's long-term, multi-billion-dollar nuclear weapons waste cleanup program, says a new study by the independent National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA).

In a 19-month review of DOE's Office of Environmental Management (EM) requested by House and Senate Appropriations Committees, NAPA found a need for improved accountability and streamlined management. But NAPA reviewers also found that the EM staff of 1,390 is insufficient to oversee the 34,000 contractors actually conducting the huge cleanups. Comparing EM staffing to similar but smaller cleanup programs conducted by the Army Corps of Engineers and the Navy Facilities Engineering Command, NAPA determined that two to six times more DOE staff members are needed to run the $200 billion cleanup program.

The report's findings refute management cutbacks that began in late 2001 under an accelerated cleanup pushed by then-energy secretary Spencer Abraham (C&EN, March 25, 2002, page 33).

NAPA board member Jonathan D. Breul, who oversaw the investigation, points to a "significant mismatch between the work EM has been asked to perform and the staff resources required to perform it." Breul's panel recommends a staff increase of 200 employees over the next year and urges DOE to develop innovative recruitment and human capital strategies to attract and retain cleanup management staff.

THE 200-EMPLOYEE increase, he says, is a "very conservative number" and a "sensible first step." He also notes the difficulty of hiring that many high-level managers in one year.

Assistant Secretary James A. Rispoli, who heads EM, agrees with NAPA's recommendations and, in a joint briefing with Breul, said his office had already implemented several management reforms. Rispoli, who worked with NAPA on the review, even urged NAPA to expand the examination when Congress requested it due to EM's history of cost overruns and missed schedules.

NAPA's report notes the management problems date to the 2001 EM overhaul and that solutions may ultimately rest with DOE headquarters, rather than Rispoli, who took over the program in 2005.

EM staff and budget were "dramatically reduced" since 2001, when the accelerated cleanup program was begun with its goal to "go out of business" as quickly as possible, the report says, and as a result many skilled managers quit or retired. Yet EM responsibilities continued to grow, and the office was even given new duties, such as overseeing waste generated from other ongoing federal activities. Despite the increased workload, NAPA notes, today's EM workforce is less than half the 2001 level of about 3,000.

Recently DOE has publicly acknowledged cleanup program difficulties. Last year's budget request, for instance, states that EM has "experienced setbacks in achieving the vision of accelerated cleanup."

"At the core of these setbacks are optimistic planning assumptions that have not materialized, combined with new scope and requirements that were not anticipated," the budget document states, warning that an additional $50 billion is likely to be needed over the cleanup program's life.

But the accelerated program did result in successes—quicker cleanups at Rocky Flats Site in Colorado and several sites in Ohio—Rispoli says.

"The department needed to demonstrate to the nation that it can close cleanups and close some former weapons sites," Rispoli says, but he adds that future cleanup sites are much bigger.

Yet the Bush Administration continues to reduce EM funding. Last fiscal year the Administration sought $5.6 billion for environmental management, $1 billion less than for 2006. For 2008, it sought $5.3 billion; Congress appropriated that amount.

The funding decline is likely to continue, says Don Hancock with the Southwest Research & Information Center, a nonprofit organization in New Mexico that tracks DOE nuclear programs. The Administration is expected to request only $4.9 billion for environmental management in 2009, Hancock says.

Although Hancock is a longtime critic of the cleanup program, he applauds the NAPA report's emphasis on more contractor oversight. "Many of us have been saying this for years," he notes. "Contractors run these programs. The contracts offer incentives to spend money under the appearance of doing something."

He adds that the most difficult cleanups are far from complete, pointing to the Hanford Site in Washington and Savannah River Site in South Carolina.

Hancock also worries that problems at the recently closed Rocky Flats Site may reappear decades down the road since much plutonium remains buried there.

"The argument is made that we waste money on government bureaucrats, and that's true in some cases," he says. "But good bureaucrats save taxpayers millions of dollars when they do their job correctly."

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