Following its 2003 performance and accountability report on the Department of Energy (DoE), the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a number of reports on the department’s progress regarding nuclear energy which suggest that more work needs to be done to improve DoE management.

The GAO identified specific performance and management challenges facing the department and concludes that while the DoE has undertaken some corrective action in all of the areas that GAO reviewed, outstanding issues remain.

A key issue concerns managing the cleanup of DoE’s radioactive wastes. The DoE continues to reform its business and contracting processes and pursue an accelerated, risk-based cleanup strategy at many of its sites but management leadership and focus will be needed to ensure that these initiatives are implemented in a safe and cost-effective manner, says the GAO. Further efforts will be required to overcome other challenges, such as the lack of disposal sites for high level and low-level mixed waste and the need to develop and deploy innovative cleanup technologies that could affect DoE’s ability to accomplish its cleanup goals.

The GAO makes a number of recommendations to the DoE to improve the management of its cleanup activities, such as ensuring that management practices include conducting rigorous analyses, following best practices for incorporating new technologies, and being cautious about using a concurrent design/build approach for nuclear facilities. The GAO also recommends developing decontamination and decommissioning plans for the Paducah and Portsmouth uranium enrichment plants that would identify the most probable timeframes and costs for completing the cleanup of these facilities.

However, the DoE has been slow to resolve a number of significant issues associated with implementing the design basis threat at its sites that contain nuclear weapons or weapons grade material. Consequently, it may be several years before its sites can fully meet the new requirements contained in its revised design basis threat.