July 13, 2004
The report from the General Accounting Office specifically criticized the Energy Department's fast-track approach to building Hanford's vitrification plant, which will turn radioactive waste into glass logs for permanent disposal.
Construction on the plant was required to begin by July 2001. Under pressure to meet that deadline, the Energy Department set its contract price for the project at the end of 2000 with the design less than 15 percent complete.
Construction is under way even as design and technology development work continue.
That lack of planning will lead to problems ranging from construction delays to increased operating expenses later, the report said Friday.
Plant construction was estimated at $4.35 billion before the contract was awarded in 2000. The current estimate is close to $5.7 billion, an increase of more than 30 percent.
The Energy Department said it could reduce the time needed to treat Hanford tank waste by 20 years under an accelerated cleanup plan and reduce the $56 billion cost to clean up Hanford by $20 billion.
But the $20 billion cost savings was overstated, and the savings likely will be closer to $12 billion, the report said.
Another uncertainty about the cleanup stems from a lawsuit, now on appeal, that could require the Energy Department to dispose of a majority of its tank waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
The report concluded the agency has not adequately defined the potential effects that the legal challenge may have on its overall plan for high-level waste disposal.
``Unless effectively managed, an adverse legal outcome could increase project costs by tens of billions of dollars,'' the report said.
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, recommended that the Energy Department avoid fast-track cleanup approaches with concurrent design on complex projects.
The report also asked the agency to provide Congress with a plan for treating and disposing of waste if the Energy Department loses the current lawsuit.
Jessie Roberson, assistant secretary for environmental management for the Energy Department, wrote in a letter to the GAO that the agency was concerned that preparing a revised plan for Congress would be premature while the matter is still being decided in the courts.
However, giving Congress a better sense of the magnitude of changes that might be needed is appropriate, Roberson wrote.
For 40 years, Hanford made plutonium for the nation's nuclear weapons arsenal. Today, work there centers on a $50 billion to $60 billion cleanup, to be finished by 2035.