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Not the end of the world: Senator blasts GAO report on nuclear material disposal

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By Roger Snodgrass

The senior senator from New Mexico had not seen the new report by the Government Accountability Office early this week.A radio reporter asked Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., during his customary Tuesday teleconference what he thought about the GAO review that said the energy department has not yet finished plans to consolidate “nuclear bomb fuel.”The report in question was about “Securing U.S. Nuclear Material.” It was released this week in response to a request by senior Republican members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Rep. Joe Barton of Texas and Rep. Ed Whitfield of Kentucky asked GAO last year to check on DOE’s plans and report back on whether those plans could be accomplished on schedule and within budget.When first asked about it, Domenici said he wasn’t ready to answer.“We’re just going to have to take a look and see what that’s all about,” he said. “It’s never come to me as something that is a show-stopper.”He promised to take a look and put out a release if it was something serious.“I don’t think it is,” he said. “I think it’s a routine report, but it may be more important than that.”When Barton and Whitfield were, respectively, in charge of the committee and its oversight subcommittee until late last year, they led several investigations into DOE management failures, including a series of hearings on business problems and security issues at Los Alamos National Laboratory.The GAO report, the most recent on the subject of trying to save money and gain security by consolidating weapons-grade nuclear material found that DOE had been working for two years on how to do that with relatively little to show for it. So far, the investigative arm of Congress concluded that the department has drafted only two of the eight plans that have been promised and even those leave a lot to be desired.Bottom line, the authors wrote, “DOE cannot ensure that its plans are carried out on schedule and within cost because the plans drafted to date have only limited descriptions of organizational roles and responsibilities and lack performance measures to monitor the department’s progress toward meeting its consolidation and disposition goals.”Having studied the report in the meantime, Domenici was critical of its implications.In a press release on Wednesday he called the document “a cheap shot.”“It is a typical GAO-must-find-something-wrong-type report,” he said. “While I acknowledge that DOE has its problems, this report does not mean Armageddon is upon us.”The GAO report discusses inventories of plutonium-239 at LANL and other sites that will be consolidated at the Savannah River Site, prepared for permanent disposal in a process using molten glass known as vitrification. The waste would be stored on site, destined for the Yucca Mountain geologic repository, if it is successfully built and licensed.Uranium-233, plutonium-238, highly enriched special nuclear materials and surplus plutonium pits stored at the Pantex site in Texas are also the subject of consolidation plans in progress.The consolidation process has become a priority under the heightened security profile that DOE has adopted to prevent a terrorist attack on a nuclear site. Security costs for storing nuclear materials under the present arrangements “can reach hundreds of millions of dollars at each DOE site that stores it,” GAO noted.DOE responded that the department agreed with the recommendations “in principle,” but complained that the report lacked balance and objectivity, ignoring “substantial progress” over the last few years.“I suggest we take a fair look at the situation, and the progress that has been made,” Domenici said in a statement. “When DOE initiated this effort in 2005, it didn’t have the foggiest idea of what material it had, where it was located, or in what form.”Domenici said the department deserved a grade of A-minus, for doing a good job in addressing “a problem that has been neglected for generations.”