Monday, March 21, 2011

Nuclear Waste: DOE Needs a Comprehensive Strategy and Guidance on Computer Models that Support Environmental Cleanup Decisions -- GAO

This report (GAO-11-143), dated February 10, 2011, the Department of Energy's Office of Environmental Management (EM) uses computer models to support key cleanup decisions. Because the results of these decisions can cost billions of dollars to implement and take decades to complete, it is crucial that the models are of the highest quality.

EM uses general departmental policies and industry standards for ensuring quality, but they are not specific to computer models used in cleanup decisions. EM has not regularly performed periodic quality assurance assessments, as required by DOE policy, to oversee contractors’ development and use of cleanup models and the models’ associated software.

In our review of eight cleanup decisions at Hanford and SRS that used computer modeling as a critical source of information, GAO found EM conducted required assessments of the quality of computer models in only three cases. In addition, citing flaws in a model EM uses to analyze soil and groundwater contamination, regulators from Washington state have told EM that it will no longer accept the use of this model for chemical exposure analysis at Hanford.

EM does not have an overall strategy for managing its computer models. EM has recently begun some efforts to promote consistency in the use of models. For example, it is developing a set of state-of-the-art computer models to support soil and groundwater cleanup decisions across its sites. However, these efforts are still in early stages and are not part of a comprehensive, coordinated effort.

Furthermore, although other federal agencies and DOE offices have recognized the importance of comprehensive guidance on the appropriate procedures for managing computer models, EM does not have such overarching guidance. As a result, EM may miss opportunities to improve the quality of computer models, reduce duplication between DOE sites, and share lessons learned across the nuclear weapons complex.

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