An Energy Department program to reduce radioactive waste has created fiscal waste instead — costing taxpayers $56 million even before ground has been broken.
A government investigation into a planned treatment plant for radioactive liquid waste (also called transuranic liquid waste, or TRU) found that construction is seriously behind schedule and over budget.
"Despite more than seven years of effort, and the expenditure of $56 million, design work for the TRU facility has not been completed and the project's completion date is 11 years behind schedule," said an investigation from an internal watchdog, the Energy Department's inspector general.
What's more, the price of the facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has ballooned from $86 million to $214 million, an increase of almost 150 percent.
Indecisiveness on how many facilities to build has caused part of the delay, investigators said. In 2005, officials planned to build two separate plants: one to treat low-level waste and another to treat transuranic liquid waste. In 2006, the designs were combined into a single facility. In 2011, they were separated again.
Investigators said neither Los Alamos nor the government's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) evaluated all the costs that could be associated with the project and did not explain the financial impact of combining two facilities into one.
Los Alamos also did not have a plan to manage risks until 2009, investigators said, despite identifying a number of things that could go wrong as early as April 2006.
"For more than 20 years, DOE has been on the 'high risk' list of federal agencies vulnerable to waste, fraud and abuse because of its inability to effectively manage its nuclear projects," said Robert Alvarez, a nuclear energy analyst at the Institute for Policy Studies. "The TRU treatment project joins a list of current projects that have experienced exceptionally large cost overruns and delays."
Mr. Alvarez pointed to several examples that have often drawn criticism from watchdogs, including a uranium replacement facility in Tennessee whose price tag has grown from $1 billion to $11 billion and a metallurgy research plant at Los Alamos for which construction cost estimates have increased ninefold to $5.9 billion.
"The DOE relies entirely too much on its contractors and over the years has lost its cadre of technical project managers," he said.
The inspector general did credit Los Alamos and the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) for making improvements to oversight and cost estimates, and investigators expressed optimism that these changes could reduce waste as the project moves forward.
"Design changes due to a changing set of safety, capacity and waste disposition requirements have resulted in several project delays since 2005," said Los Alamos National Laboratory spokesman Kevin Roark. "We appreciate the report's recognition that the laboratory and NNSA have made significant progress in the last two years, and that the project is expected to advance through final design by the end of this year, with construction expected to begin in 2014."
The Energy Department did not return calls seeking comment.
Los Alamos was not at fault for some of the delays, the inspector general said. The project was put on hold for almost a year while the site awaited the results of an environmental impact study.
Additional costs were incurred during deliberations on the types of pipes to use in construction.
The laboratory wanted corrosive-resistant plastic pipes, but federal oversight agency the Defense Nuclear Facility Safety Board wanted stainless steel.
The two eventually compromised on stainless steel with a corrosive-resistant plastic lining, and work resumed.
Los Alamos also has been reducing the amount of radioactive waste it creates, which has contributed to a downsize in the facility and will save money in the long run, the inspector general said. The national laboratory has been able to reduce the amount of low-level radioactive waste it creates by 47 percent per year and the level of TRU by 65 percent.
The new facility will replace a 50-year-old plant that investigators say has broken down on multiple occasions.
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