Nuclear Waste: Agency Racks Up $16B in Cost Overruns
Policy + Politics

Nuclear Waste: Agency Racks Up $16B in Cost Overruns

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Apparently, the threat of nuclear disaster is not enough incentive for the federal government to get its financial house in order.

Nearly every major project that the National Nuclear Security Administration – the agency charged with securing the country’s nuclear arsenal – is behind schedule and over budget, according to an Associated Press report.

The NNSA, part of the Department of Energy, is some $16 billion over budget on ten major products, according to the Government Accountability Office. To put that in some perspective, the NNSA’s annual appropriation for fiscal 2012 was $11 billion.

Nuclear watchdogs chalk up the backlog to accountability failures since the end of the Cold War combined with automatic annual spending increases. They also say that private contractors, which run most of the projects NNSA is responsible for, have used the programs as job factories.

"The post-Cold War nuclear warhead complex has become a gigantic self-licking ice cream cone for contractors," Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog organization, told the Associated Press.

The United States has reduced its nuclear arsenal in recent years, but it's still large enough – more than 5,100 weapons operationally capable – to destroy a good chunk of the world with relative ease.

But according to the AP, a $213 billion update to a key American nuclear lab simply doesn’t work. Those same labs sit on a fault line and are housed in a structure that is vulnerable to collapse during an earthquake.

It’s not as if this problem is new. According to GAO, last year Congress cut $6 billion of funding over five years on a Los Alamos plutonium lab that duplicated work being done in Tennessee, even though the lab had been in the works for years and millions had been spent on the planning. Lawmakers also cut a program in South Carolina that turned nuclear weapons fuel into nuclear reactor fuel: The plant is $3 billion over budget and three years behind schedule.

NNSA's problems have attracted the attention of Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who blamed the problem on the Department of Energy's contractors. Outside workers outnumber full-time DOE employees 92,000 to 16,000. 

"Unfortunately for the taxpayer ... cost overruns, scheduled delays and technical failures are the rule, not the exception," McCaskill told the AP. "We need to find a better way to do this because we can't just afford the status quo anymore."

But other lawmakers are less outraged. One for House member is even profiting from it. According to the wire service, former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-NM) was paid nearly half a million dollars for non-bid contracting work. But auditors could not determine what, if any, work Wilson had done to earn it.