When a government watchdog reports that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) isn’t repairing its buildings, or is using obsolete fire safety equipment, or has broken security sensors “safeguarding” radioactive stockpiles, the NNSA’s answer is always the same: We don’t have enough money.
Look closer, however, and you’ll see that it’s not NNSA’s funding that’s the problem as much as the agency’s misplaced priorities. It’s important for the public to understand where NNSA’s $11.4 billion annual budget is going, and why it’s not being used to pay for things such as keeping nuclear weapons stores safe and secure.
NNSA is the semiautonomous agency within the Department of Energy (DOE) responsible for maintaining America’s nuclear weapons, helping develop naval nuclear reactors, tracking nuclear material in other countries, and in general advancing U.S. nuclear science, technology and engineering.
The agency was created in 1999 in an effort to improve independence and accountability in the nuclear weapons complex, but, in terms of spending, the membrane between NNSA and DOE remains permeable. For example, some facilities for storing defense nuclear waste are in the NNSA budget, while some plants that treat waste are funded only through the DOE budget.
While these missions are complex, NNSA and DOE routinely find ways to make their work more costly and complicated than it needs to be. Facilities are often larger than they need to be, or built around technology that isn’t proven to work. In too many cases, contractors make design mistakes or use substandard materials, problems whose resolution is hampered by poor communication between stakeholders. If DOE or NNSA managed more closely or punished mistakes more severely, the culture of waste might begin to change. Until then, taxpayers can expect more of the following:
The Hanford Site: The site, near Richland, Washington, produced plutonium for nuclear weapons from 1942 to 1987 and currently has more radioactive waste than anywhere else in the world. The cleanup project centers on a waste treatment plant, which has gone from a projected cost of $4.3 billion in 2000 to a current estimate of $12.3 billion. The facility was supposed to open in 2011, but is now officially slated to open in 2019. That date will likely have be pushed back further for technical issues that have mostly halted construction. Under contractor Bechtel National, Inc., management at the Hanford Site has been characterized by safety violations and whistleblower reprisals. The cleanup effort—which has yet to treat any waste—is expected to cost between $64 and $73 billion total and take at least 60 years.
Mixed Oxide (MOX) Fuel Fabrication Facility: The MOX facility at the Savanah River Site in South Carolina is being built to dispose of excess military-grade plutonium, which the U.S. is required to do under a treaty with Russia. Since its inception in 2003, life cycle cost estimates for the facility have ballooned from $1.6 billion to over $30 billion dollars. As the Union of Concern Scientists writes, “High staff turnover, the need to replace improperly installed equipment, and an antagonistic relationship between the local federal project director and the contractor are only some of the factors undermining the project.” According to a recently leaked report, the alternative to MOX, entombing plutonium in special glass, could cost $300-400 million less per year. Moreover, all of the potential customers for MOX fuel have backed out of the project.
Uranium Processing Facility (UPF): The Uranium Processing Facility at the Y-12 National Security Complex is supposed to support a number of NNSA projects. When it was proposed in 2005 UPF was expected to cost between $600 million and $1 billion. Current estimates place the cost as high as $19 billion, with an estimated completion date of 2038. By that time, it’s not clear that the facility will be able to contribute to NNSA’s current stockpile stewardship goals. It’s also not clear that UPF offers capacity or capabilities that DOE needs, doesn’t already have, or couldn’t get for less at existing facilities.
Many already troubled projects are complicated by DOE’s reliance on contractors. That’s because it’s hard to supervise and ensure standards when dozens of DOE’s major contractors, many of whom are on the hook for millions in contract violations, are, in turn, issuing subcontracts for research, development, construction and security. In 2013, the DOE Inspector General found “subcontracts valued in excess of $906 million had not been audited or were reviewed in a manner that did not meet audit standards.” In this situation, private firms end up auditing themselves, essentially letting the fox guard the henhouse.
Rather than take steps to improve accountability, NNSA has actively reduced contractor oversight by withholding Performance Evaluation Plans (PEP) and Reports (PER) from the public. The reports, which explain how NNSA determines contractor performance and award fees, were public until 2009, when NNSA decided the reports were “no longer useful” for taxpayers. Over time, PEPs and PERs have been watered down so that they are now more of a formality than a real oversight tool. And yet, NNSA continues to waste time and money by requiring yearly Freedom of Information Act Requests (and a lawsuit) to make the reports available to the public.
DOE relies on and protects contractors from oversight even in cases where federal employees would be preferable. As the former engineering director at the waste treatment plant at the Hanford Site once told DOE, “unlike the contractor, Federal staff have no other motive than to represent the interests of the Department and the taxpayer.”
With Congress locked in a budget stalemate, and DOE and NNSA continuing to deflect criticism of their spending and performance, informed citizens should bear in mind these agencies aren’t short on money—they’re short on responsibility.