DOE Assistant Secretary White Emphasizes ‘Progress Through Action’ In Waste Management Symposia Address

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Department of Energy Environmental Management Assistant Secretary Anne White addresses the 2019 Waste Management Symposia March 4 in Phoenix. Photo Courtesy DOE/EM.


On March 4, EM Assistant Secretary Anne White addressed the 2019 Waste Management Symposia, the preeminent international conference for the management and disposition of radioactive wastes and decommissioning of nuclear facilities. Following are White’s remarks as prepared.

Thank you for inviting me to join you today. I appreciate Waste Management for making this event possible.

In his recent State of the Union address, President Trump challenged us, as Americans, to choose greatness. He said, and I quote:

“This is the time to reignite the American imagination. This is the time to search for the tallest summit, and set our sights on the brightest star.”

I couldn’t agree more.

This sentiment is embodied in this Administration’s long-term vision for modernizing the federal government in a way that enables agencies to deliver on our missions and serve as effective stewards of taxpayer dollars.

In order to transform that vision into reality, EM is focusing on improving our acquisition process, shifting from low-value to high-value work and developing a 21st century workforce. A theme we are all exploring more this week given the very fitting theme of this symposium.

With Secretary Perry, Deputy Secretary Brouillette, and Under Secretary Dabbar, we are fortunate to have leaders at the helm of the Department of Energy with the vision and tenacity to get things done. To choose greatness. Who understand that innovation — not regulation — is key to our national security, to American energy preeminence, and to meeting our environmental legacy responsibilities.

I am honored to have Deputy Secretary Brouillette with us here today, whose breadth of experience and forward-looking leadership is helping better position EM to tackle the cleanup challenges of the next 30 years. We will hear from him in just a bit.

We are also fortunate to have tremendous cleanup champions like Congressman Mike Simpson with us.

As a leader of the House Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee and a longstanding advocate for Idaho and all of our EM sites, I appreciate his steadfast support for all things nuclear.

Whether its defense waste cleanup, commercial nuclear power, research and more, Congressman Mike Simpson has been there every step of the way providing leadership, resources, and wise counsel.

Industry, thank you for standing beside me, supporting my vision and supporting our mission.

The focus of this year’s symposium is “Encouraging Young Men & Women to Achieve Their Goals in Radwaste Management” — a topic that is near and dear to me.

As I work to institutionalize a completion-centric mindset within EM, I know cleanup success will ultimately depend on the next generation of problem-solvers, innovators, and leaders intent on getting great things done.

With that in mind, I would like to ask the early career professionals in the room to stand so we can recognize you.

It’s important to me that EM and our contractor partners serve as an incubator for the next generation workforce to meet cleanup mission needs and prepare the leaders of tomorrow — the young people in the room today.

Since “time is of the essence,” I want to express my commitment to bringing on the next generation of EM workers. In fact, I’m reinstating an internship program, the EM Pathways Program, to help strengthen the workforce by creating a future pipeline of talent.

The program will provide opportunities for recent undergraduate and graduate students to join the federal government with a pathway to permanent employment.

We need to cultivate the next generation and navigate federal hiring to bring these folks on board in public service to this great country. I have found it to be a great honor to be serving the American taxpayer.

Opportunity for Transformative Action Versus Treading Water

While it doesn’t always make headline news, progress through action is being made at each of our EM sites.

  • We are making real progress towards Direct Feed Low Activity Waste vitrification at Hanford. The site is coalescing around this important mission.
  • On the other end of the cycle we safely completed demolition of the 50-foot-tall, 10,000-square-foot Vitrification Facility at West Valley.
  • Ground has been broken on the new ventilation system at WIPP, a facility that is key to the final disposition of transuranic waste across the EM complex.
  • Work performed by Oak Ridge’s EM Program in 2018 brought the site closer to its ambitious goal to complete major cleanup at the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP) in 2020.
  • At Separations Process Research Unit (SPRU), we completed H2 Building and Tank Farm D&D.
  • And we published the Final Environmental Impact Statement at Energy Technology Engineering Center (ETEC). A document 10 years in the making.

From my time in industry, I understand where work gets done. It is not east of the Potomac, it is out in the field. Our field managers, staff, and contractors are doing a great job progressing the baseline scope —but we must do more.

Even with all this great work being done, and progress being made, EM still faces significant challenges.

Cleanup progress is being significantly outpaced by ever-extending site closure dates, leading to increased environmental liabilities. Time equals money!

As most of you have heard me say, environmental liabilities represent the third largest liability for the U.S. taxpayer. EM makes up 84 percent of that total.

Even with significant budgets, EM is swimming upstream.

Rather than fight the current of environmental liabilities, risks, M&O hotel costs, lifecycle schedules, and to-go costs that we have all seen grow each year despite progress on the ground, it’s time to change the course of the river.

The fact is, cleanup progress cannot outpace this current if EM stays on the same course it has been for nearly 30 years.

During the early years, EM was rightfully focused on figuring out what kinds of waste it had, how much it had, and where it was.

That evolved into cleanup plans and agreements with states and regulators based on the best available information and science at the time.

At one point in our history, we were stemming the tide as we completed work at Fernald, Rocky Flats, and Mound.

This program, that we used to call a project, started in 1989. But we’re not here to discuss the EM of the past.

At this point, we’ve all been at this a long time — this is our 30-year anniversary.

It’s time to modernize EM. Our knowledge and technology have matured significantly over the years. It’s time for EM, our regulators, and our stakeholders to reexamine the assumptions and approaches made over the past two decades to determine the adequacy and appropriateness in today’s environment.

We need to employ cleanup that is reflective of the latest knowledge in the areas of waste composition and risks, lessons learned over decades of cleanup, and attainable end-states.

It’s time to work together toward a future that will not simply enable EM to keep treading water — but will propel the mission forward and drive cleanup toward completion and closure.

How Do We Get There? How Does EM Maximize Opportunities for Acceleration?

So, how do we get there?

That’s a big part of what my team and I are looking at.

It starts with abandoning vague notions of our challenges and truly getting to the bottom of what we are dealing with using accurate, up-to-date information. We provided this transparency and understanding by updating the Hanford Lifecycle Baseline as part of our Tri-Party Agreement milestone.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure. You should expect a continued focus on strengthening program management, oversight, and accountability to ensure value for the American taxpayer.

Work must be prioritized based on real risks and sound science, rather than perceived risks or soundbites. I will drive down risk, not simply move it around.

We will soon complete our site options assessments that we began last year. We look forward to engaging with stakeholders, regulators, and in particular, the local communities in which these sites reside.

I want us to consider the range of possibilities in terms of what could be achieved at sites across the complex if we are willing to reassess our assumptions, consider new approaches and disposal options, and just think outside the box.

Know that this is a starting point in what will be a collaborative approach as the options analysis evolves. This process will include several opportunities for meaningful input and public comment next year.

Better Options for Waste Management/Disposal

Now, I’d like to discuss an issue that I have been personally involved with for a long time — the interpretation of high-level waste. I am glad to see the Department moving the discussion on this forward after so many reports and recommendations from outside groups.

The local Richland community provided a significant amount of positive input.

I hope that many of you will provide your unique insight into efforts underway to examine possible options to better manage and dispose of waste that has been stored at sites for decades with no near-term path forward.

The Department issued for public comment its interpretation of the statutory term, high-level radioactive waste. An interpretation that would bring the U.S. more in line with definitions used by the rest of the world — having the option to classify waste based on its actual contents and associated risks versus solely on the source of the waste.

It is important to note this is but the first step in a process that must comply with existing regulatory requirements and law.

In no case will the interpretation abrogate the Department’s responsibilities under existing regulatory agreements.

Stretching Every Cleanup Dollar

EM is also taking steps to get the best value out of every cleanup dollar with which we are entrusted.

Consistent with the Deputy Secretary’s initiative on regulatory reform, I have directed staff and the field to look at opportunities for change. Based on my experience in the field, this will lead to an enhanced safety culture because many of the reforms are common sense approaches that can streamline our work.

I want to see EM drive down the operating and maintenance costs for our facilities, which take up a significant portion of our annual cleanup budget, and instead plow those resources into actual cleanup work.

As project lifecycle schedules drag out, aging facilities, components, and equipment are stretching resources. It’s simple math — we can either put money towards cleanup or we can maintain aging facilities and build new, but we can’t do it all.

Improving Procurement Process/Contract Management/Oversight Performance

We are changing the way we do business!

One of our most transformative initiatives that I’ve undertaken is in the area of contracting.

As many of you are acutely aware, on Valentine’s Day, the Department released a Final Request for Proposal for the Tank Closure Contract (TCC) and the Central Plateau Cleanup Contract (CPCC) at the Hanford Site — both of which are representative of the new contract model.

EM has billions of dollars in procurements coming up at some of our largest sites over the next few years, representing a significant opportunity to improve our procurement processes, contract management, and oversight performance.

End-state contracting is not a contract type, but an approach to creating meaningful and visible progress through defined end-states, even at sites with completion dates far into the future. This is intended to drive a culture of completion.

With this new approach, EM will adhere to a “manage the contract, not the contractor” model.

Here’s what we are not changing, though. The new model does not diminish the required subcontracting or small business goals for acquisitions, nor will it change the definition for what DOE considers meaningful work.

Attainable Aligned Regulatory Agreements

I am hopeful that contract approach combined with the discussions we are having on the regulatory front will yield impactful results.

Based on the experience and lessons learned in the last three decades of cleanup and advances in technology and approaches, there are opportunities to streamline and accelerate cleanup by pursuing strategies that are faster, more cost effective, and more technically sound, and would reduce risk to human health and the environment.

We have opportunities to utilize tools available to work together on removing barriers to efficient cleanup. These could include CERCLA and RCRA integration at the end, aligning end-use to cleanup standards and recognizing that some areas will need to remain under government control in perpetuity, and streamlining our internal decision processes.

Today we face important decisions about the trajectory of the EM program.

The most successful EM is a program reflective of the latest scientific knowledge about waste, using the most up-to-date cost and schedule estimates, and that incorporates a “Live and Learn” philosophy from the last 30 years of cleanup.

We are instilling and institutionalizing a completion-centric approach to cleanup that is focused on getting projects/sites “done, done” and off the books in a manner that enables our host states and communities to plan for a vibrant future.

We can get back to where EM is having major site completions and closures again — like we had at Rocky and Fernald. That kind of success and excitement will attract the next generation of engineers.

Opportunities like WM that promote collaboration across such a broad spectrum as we have here today are crucial as we work to uphold the federal government’s responsibility to complete cleanup of our nuclear waste legacy and reduce the ever-growing environmental liability for the American taxpayer.

I encourage you to connect with me, with my team at DOE headquarters, and with your site leadership to share your input and ideas as EM marks its 30th anniversary this year and we enter the next chapter of cleanup together.