Energy Department IG Urges Action to Preserve U.S. Atomic Assets

WASHINGTON -- The United States must reform several oversight practices to avoid potential lapses that could lead to the elimination of "irreplaceable" materials tied to its nuclear complex, the Energy Department inspector general said in findings made public this week.

The Energy Department ordered its semiautonomous National Nuclear Security Administration in August 2009 to designate specific institutions as leaders in overseeing various classes of atomic substances. However, the agency responsible for overseeing U.S. nuclear complex operations did not finish establishing the first such authority until last July, according to the report dated Jan. 11.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina have acted informally as "technical points of contact" for matters concerning plutonium while the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee has assumed a comparable leadership role for uranium, auditors wrote. Until the NNSA Nuclear Materials Integration Office in July assigned the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to be the "lead materials management organization" for heavy isotopes, the department lacked a single authority for managing select nuclear system assets.

"For example, the existing inventory of plutonium 242/244, americium 243 and curium 244/246/248 are valuable as feedstock for producing new isotopes," the inspector general report states. Energy Department personnel in 2011 "identified these materials as rare and economically irreplaceable," and "acknowledged the need for department decisions regarding the preservation of these materials before the opportunity is lost" when the substances break down.

It was unclear what uses the department saw for the materials. Multiple NNSA offices did not respond to requests for clarification on Thursday.

A number of officials told auditors that designating material-specific oversight roles could "obscure responsibilities" for disposing of nuclear waste and impose new regulatory hurdles. The report does not indicate if particular management problems prompted the department to issue its 2009 order to assign such duties, and it does not specify how creating the authorities could hinder operations.

Separately, auditors warned the department had not acted to prevent special, hard-to-manufacture atomic substances from being inappropriately eliminated. Despite having no present utility, a number of DOE nuclear holdings have "research, commercial ... environmental safeguards or nuclear forensics [applications] and are unique or costly to replace," they wrote.

The NNSA nuclear materials office was acting to determine what atomic holdings it could protect by applying a "national asset" designation, the inspector general stated in the findings gathered from May 2011 to October 2012. Still, DOE officials had neither assigned the status to any items in its inventory nor set aside money for reclaiming "valuable isotopes," auditors said, highlighting the department's failure to seek congressional backing and funds to maintain a supply of uranium 233 for possible later use.

Inspector general officials commended the department for achieving "significant progress" in consolidating the nation's weapon-usable atomic materials. The Y-12 plant and the Savannah River Site now hold the nation's highly enriched uranium, and the Hanford Site in Washington state has sent the South Carolina facility most of its plutonium that cannot be used in nuclear-bomb cores, the report states.

January 18, 2013
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WASHINGTON -- The United States must reform several oversight practices to avoid potential lapses that could lead to the elimination of "irreplaceable" materials tied to its nuclear complex, the Energy Department inspector general said in findings made public this week.

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