DOE defends Hanford, other cleanup spending

By Annette Cary, Herald staff writerApril 23, 2009 

A top Department of Energy official defended spending stimulus funds at Hanford and other cleanup sites Wednesday as an Alabama senator questioned whether environmental cleanup was worth the high cost.

Ines Triay, acting DOE assistant secretary for environmental management, addressed a Senate Armed Services panel about DOE plans to spend $5.1 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on nuclear cleanup projects, with nearly a third of that money going to Hanford. It's about as much as DOE spends annually on cleanup.

"Receiving the equivalent of a full year's appropriation is a very large amount for a single program to absorb and manage," said Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces.

To date, taxpayers don't seem to have received good value for their money, said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

"I remain baffled by the amount of money we are investing here," he said.

When DOE announced three years ago that the remaining cleanup costs across the DOE complex had increased from about $100 billion to $180 billion, that already appeared to be "the largest overrun in the history of the republic," he said.

But earlier this year, DOE announced that the previous estimate of $180 billion had been increased to $205 billion to $260 billion, he said.

"I encourage you to stand up for the American taxpayer," he told Triay. He called the amount of money being spent on cleanup "stunning" and "breathtaking."

Increasing spending on cleanup with stimulus money will produce no real value to the nation, compared to other uses such as investing in incentives for wind energy, hybrid cars and clean coal technology, he said.

Total remaining costs for cleanup increased as DOE prepared a baseline, or realistic schedule and cost estimate, for the remaining cleanup work, Triay said. A Government Accountability Project report found that DOE assumptions for previous cleanup estimates were overly aggressive and unrealistic.

About 40 percent of the increased cost estimated can be based on revising unrealistic assumptions, such as the amount of radioactive waste DOE may leave in underground tanks, Triay said. Another 20 percent was caused by delays in cleanup. In addition, 15 percent of the costs were added when additional projects were added to the cleanup project, such as DOE Office of Science facilities that are no longer needed.

But there is no question that some of the increase can be traced to contractor performance, she said.

To ensure the stimulus money is well spent, DOE is spending money on projects that it has shown it can do well, such as demolishing contaminated buildings, digging up waste sites and cleaning up ground water.

The only spending that doesn't clearly fall into that framework is about $326 million that will be spent at Hanford to improve the tank farm infrastructure to prepare to feed up to 53 million gallons of radioactive waste to the vitrification plant, she said. The plant will begin treating the waste for disposal in 2019.

But none of the money will be spent for technically challenging projects, such as emptying Hanford's leak-prone older tanks of radioactive waste.

Much of the work will be done through contracts already in place at Hanford and other sites, with contracts modified for the additional work by midsummer, Triay said. In addition, existing contractors are expected to pass much of the work on to subcontractors, many of them small businesses.

DOE, Hanford contractors and the Tri-City Development Council plan a Small Business Vendor Forum Wednesday at TRAC in Pasco to allow businesses to learn about subcontracting opportunities. TRIDEC is in charge of registration.

To make sure that schedule delays and increased costs do not plague projects paid for with stimulus money, DOE will be keeping a close eye on contractors, Triay said. It's releasing 80 percent of the money for work but only 30 percent of that can be spent without additional authorization by high level officials at DOE.

To receive each additional 20 percent of the money, contractors will be required to show work is on budget and schedule, DOE said. If there's a problem, DOE will consider transferring the money to another project at the same site, such as Hanford, and as a last resort transferring the money to another site.

"This is about job creation, but it also is about performance for cleanup," she said.

Today Triay will be back in front of a Senate panel, this time for a confirmation hearing.

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