Mixed feelings on DOE reorganization

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldJuly 24, 2013 

A reorganization of the Department of Energy appears to be a step in the right direction said congressional members during a hearing Wednesday.

But there also was some skepticism from members of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations who questioned why this plan would be more effective than others over the last two decades.

DOE projects have been on the Government Accountability Office list of projects at high risk for waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement since 1990.

The reorganization, among other changes, would move management of environmental cleanup at Hanford and other DOE nuclear weapons sites under a new undersecretary for management and performance.

It has been assigned to the undersecretary for nuclear security, who also leads the National Nuclear Security Administration, which is responsible for the nation's nuclear weapons.

"On paper these changes look like positive steps to help DOE address the tremendous challenges and opportunities before the agency," said subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy, R-Penn.

He pointed out that environmental cleanup costs for Hanford and other sites are estimated at more than $250 billion, a federal liability surpassed only by Social Security and Medicare.

Moving the DOE Office of Environmental Management under the new under secretary will bring DOE's strongest project management capabilities to bear on one of DOE's "most vexing, yet vital challenges -- cleaning up nuclear waste that is a legacy byproduct of the Cold War," said Daniel Poneman, deputy energy secretary.

The subcommittee has heard repeatedly from the GAO over the last two decades that DOE has had substantial and continued weaknesses in overseeing contractors and managing large, expensive and technically complex projects, Murphy said.

Speakers used Hanford's vitrification plant as an example, saying that its price has tripled to more than $12 billion. However, part of the increases have come from expansions to the plant's capabilities.

"While it has a number of unique characteristics, the history of the (vitrification plant) project is, in many ways, emblematic of the department's long-standing problems with contract administration and project management," said Gregory Friedman, DOE inspector general.

DOE has made progress in managing smaller projects -- those costing less than $750 million -- and keeping them on target to meet projected costs and schedules, said David Trimble, GAO director of natural resources and environment. Among GAO recommendations has been breaking down large projects to a more manageable size.

DOE needs a system to continuously track whether large complex capital projects are on budget and on schedule and also look at the specs of the project, Poneman said.

"It's not enough to have a project on budget and on schedule if it doesn't do the job," he said.

Trimble also discussed the need for better cost estimating, saying DOE gives contractors guidance rather than having policy covering cost estimation. That "creates looseness in the system," he said.

GAO plans to issue a report on DOE cost estimating polices and practices later this year, he said.

The announcement that a new position of undersecretary for management and performance is being created "is an encouraging development," said Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fla.

The reorganization is "a positive sign DOE has a renewed commitment to solve some of the thorny issues that have plagued the agency across multiple administrations," she said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

Tri-City Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service