by Michael Bastasch
The Department of Energy spent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a radioactive waste treatment plant that ended up breaking down because federal officials didn’t bother to properly test the facility before construction was completed, according to a recent audit.
Federal auditors also learned DOE officials likely rushed the building of the waste treatment plant because of political pressure from Congress to come in under budget. Poor management, however, means the project could cost more than $700 million and is more than 4 years behind schedule.
“Specifically, we found that the Department postponed rigorous, comprehensive performance testing; an activity intended to demonstrate the facility’s capability to function as intended and meet mission need, until after construction was declared complete,” reads a recent report by the DOE’s inspector general.
“However, by postponing the comprehensive performance test, the Department failed to perform a rigorous test of the functionality of the facility before construction was declared complete,” according to the IG’s report. “Had the testing been performed prior to declaring the project complete, the Department may have identified the flaws in the original design and corrected them under the discipline of its project management process.”
DOE paid federal contractors in 2008 to start building the Sodium-Bearing Waste Treatment Facility (SBWF) to treat 900,000 gallons of radioactive liquid waste being stored at the Idaho National Laboratory.
DOE has been trying to clean up Idaho’s spent nuclear waste for decades. In 1995, the agency signed an agreement with the state to bring in nuclear waste for research with clean-up provisions — provisions Idahoans familiar with the agreement say the DOE is failing to live up to. DOE wants to use the SBWF to convert radioactive liquids into a powder that’s safer for storage.
The facility was supposed to be completed in 2012, but a “system pressure event” forced the plant to be shut down shortly after being turned on. It has not been reopened, which the IG blamed on mismanagement by federal officials.
Essentially, DOE officials decided not to properly test the facility before it was completed. Simply testing the project before turning it on could have stopped the facility from suffering a “system pressure event” and shutting down.
“Such action deprived the Department of the opportunity to demonstrate with a high level of certainty that the plant would operate as intended, a fundamental expectation of the originally approved project scope,” the IG reported, adding the DOE opted to move project testing until after the construction phase based on “questionable information provided to senior executive management.”
“Specifically, executive management relied on test data and operating experience at other facilities to demonstrate mission readiness of the SBWTF,” the IG noted of those working on the project.
DOE officials and contractors claimed they were under pressure from Congress to complete the project under its projected $571 million cost. Now, that’s not likely to happen, according to the IG, as DOE officials already underestimated the project’s cost by $181 million. The treatment plant was originally slated to cost $461 million.
The DOE estimated project costs rose to $715 million, the Idaho Statesman reported in May, and in 2015, DOE paid the project’s contractor another $90 million in cost overruns. Now, the DOE says the project’s cost could be underestimated by $181 million.
The IG’s office “learned during the course of our audit that multiple project personnel told us there was pressure to declare the facility construction complete without exceeding the Congressionally approved line item construction project amount of $571 million, also the contractual cost cap for construction.”
“Specifically, we were told that the original comprehensive performance test approach was deemed to be too time-consuming and would jeopardize the schedule and cost limitations for the construction project,” the IG noted.
But the report also noted DOE was trying to hide the true cost of the nuclear waste facility by using funding meant for operating the facility for construction costs. The IG estimates “the total actual construction cost for this facility is likely understated by about $181 million thus far.”
“Based on expenditures of $4 million per month, the future costs could exceed $40 million by the planned startup date of September 2016,” the IG reported. “Recasting these ‘operation costs’ as construction costs would breach the approved limit of $571 million. Department officials told us that other cleanup work at the Idaho site that might otherwise have been accelerated was not, because the funding for that work is being used to repair and reconstruct the SBWTF.”
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