GAO report: WIPP projects continue to be at risk

March 17, 2022, 6:54AMRadwaste Solutions
Workers construct a new ventilation system's filter building last year at WIPP. (Photo: DOE)

Without a plan for addressing issues in completing construction projects at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico, the Department of Energy cannot ensure that further cost increases and schedule delays will not continue, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office. In particular, the GAO said, the DOE has not developed a corrective action plan to address root causes identified for the rising cost and the delay in building a new ventilation system at the transuranic waste repository.

The new system—called the Safety Significant Confinement Ventilation System (SSCVS) in the GAO report—is intended to increase airflow to the underground repository, allowing full waste emplacement, mining, and maintenance operations to resume. Operations at WIPP have been scaled back following two accidents that occurred in 2014, which reduced the repository’s ventilation capacity.

Work on the SSCVS began in May 2018 and was projected to be completed by November 2022 at a total project cost of $288 million. According to the GAO, as of October 2021 the DOE is expected to complete the system in January 2026 at a revised estimated cost of approximately $486 million. Likewise, the GAO said that a new utility shaft being constructed at the site to complement the SSCVS is also at risk of cost overruns and schedule delays.

The causes: According to the GAO report, which was issued on March 15, the DOE identified the inexperience of its contractor in managing capital asset projects and a difficulty in attracting and retaining qualified workers to WIPP’s remote region as two root causes for the increasing cost and the time required to complete the SSCVS. (Nuclear Waste Partnership is WIPP’s management and operations contractor.)

The GAO also said that the DOE has identified more specific problems with the SSCVS project and has taken corrective actions to address them.

“While some of these corrective actions may also help to address the root causes, the extent to which these actions will do so is unclear because DOE is not required to develop a corrective action plan for addressing the root causes and does not have a process to determine whether root causes have been sufficiently addressed,” the GAO report states.

Without such a plan and process, the GAO said, the DOE cannot ensure that the causes for the cost increases and schedule delays in the WIPP ventilation project or other projects will not persist or recur.

The recommendations: To help avoid further delays and cost overruns, the GAO made the following four recommendations to the DOE:

  • The DOE’s director of the Office of Project Management should assess the extent to which all corrective actions taken in response to various SSCVS project reviews have addressed the identified root causes and contributing factors and determine whether there is reasonable assurance that the root causes will not persist. (Paul Bosco is the current director.)
  • The DOE’s project management order (Order 413.3B) should be updated to require that program offices develop corrective action plans that will address root causes.
  • Order 413.3B should also be updated to require that the Office of Project Management assess and validate the extent to which the program office has taken corrective actions to address root causes identified during the baseline change process.
  • The DOE’s risk register for WIPP should be updated to include specific regulatory, construction, and other risks, together with adequate mitigation strategies.

The result: The DOE agreed with all four of the GAO’s recommendations, saying it is “committed to ensuring root causes of project cost and schedule delays are identified and fully addressed to ensure that DOE projects benefit taxpayers while reducing the risk to human health and environment.”

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