Report By House panel criticises DOE

29 November 2000

The staff of the House Commerce Committee has issued a report charging the US Department of Energy with squandering hundreds of millions of dollars in R&D funding aimed at developing new, innovative technologies for cleaning up sites formerly used in the US nuclear weapons programme.

The DOE and its cleanup contractors failed to make effective use of technologies developed via funding through the Office of Science and Technology, according to the staff report (Incinerating Cash: The Department of Energy’s Failure to Develop and Use Innovative Technologies to Clean Up the Nuclear Waste Legacy).

Congress created the technology development programme in 1989 with the aim of helping the government cut the costs of cleaning up waste left over from Cold War nuclear weapons programmes. But while OST has spent $3.4 billion to develop nearly 1000 innovative cleanup technologies over the past 10 years, the report charges that few, if any, of them have been used to date at DOE waste sites, including Rocky Flats, Hanford, and WIPP. What is more, few of the OST-funded technologies have been identified for potential use in future cleanup plans.

One problem is that technologies developed by small companies with OST funds face non-technical barriers, the report said. One example is waste inspection tomography (WIT), a cost-saving technology for non-intrusive characterisation of transuranic waste drums, in which DOE and OST invested $13 million over 10 years.

“The DOE now has access to two mobile, full-scale, and operable WIT units that are ready to be transported to more than 20 DOE sites where transuranic wastes are located,” said Representative Thomas Blilely (Republican-Virginia), chairman of the House Commerce Committee. “However, WIT is not currently deployed for use at any DOE site.” Bliley said the failure to deploy WIT is particularly notable since shipments of transuranic wastes from six major DOE sites to the recently opened Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) site have recently tripled.

Bliley said it is unlikely the DOE will achieve its goal of $20 billion in life-cycle cost savings from the use of OST-funded technologies. He called on the DOE and its contractors to “demonstrate real leadership and a commitment” to eliminate arbitrary barriers to their deployment.

In response to this, the DOE said the programme has turned the corner and is beginning to produce results. Carolyn Huntoon, the DOE's assistant secretary for environmental management, said one out of five OST-funded R&D projects has resulted in a viable technology that is now being used by the department.

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