Uranium Management: Actions to Mitigate Risks to Domestic Supply Chain Could Be Better Planned and Coordinated

What GAO Found

Federal agencies, including the Department of Energy (DOE) and the separately organized National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) within DOE, and uranium industry representatives have identified risks to the commercial supply chain for uranium needed for defense purposes. Such uranium may need to be mined domestically and enriched using U.S. technology to be free of obligations for the peaceful use of uranium and certain technology imported under international agreements. Identified risks to the unobligated uranium supply chain include (1) possible loss of domestic uranium mining capabilities and (2) possible challenges in re-starting the only facility in the United States for converting natural uranium into a form suitable for use in enrichment operations. Further, the U.S. has not had an operating enrichment capability that uses U.S. technology since 2013.

Idle Domestic Plant for Converting Uranium to a Form Suitable for Enrichment

DOE and NNSA have initiated actions officials believe will mitigate such risks to the unobligated uranium supply chain. For example, DOE and NNSA have both taken steps to reestablish a domestic enrichment capability with U.S. technology. In addition, DOE has proposed creation of a domestic uranium reserve to help support the domestic uranium mining and conversion industries until market conditions improve. DOE’s fiscal year 2021 budget request includes $150 million for the reserve. However, we cannot conclude that the estimate is reasonable because it is unclear how the funding needs for the reserve were determined. By providing a more complete analysis to support future funding requests for the reserve, DOE could better provide assurance that such requests would achieve objectives.

The Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s strategy to mitigate risks to the domestic uranium industry does not fully incorporate all desirable characteristics GAO has identified for a national strategy. For example, it does not identify (1) the level of resources needed to support proposed actions or (2) an interagency coordinating mechanism. DOE is developing an implementation plan for the strategy, but DOE officials provided conflicting statements about the extent to which the agency will coordinate interagency implementation.

Why GAO Did This Study

NNSA has several defense needs for enriched uranium, including low-enriched uranium to produce tritium for nuclear weapons. To meet these needs, NNSA relies on commercial sectors of the domestic uranium industry, such as uranium mining or enrichment, which make up a supply chain for unobligated uranium. However, this industry faces commercial viability risks. In April 2020, the President’s Nuclear Fuel Working Group released a strategy to mitigate risks to the domestic uranium industry. This working group includes DOE, the Department of Defense, and other agencies.

Senate Report 115-262 included a provision that GAO review NNSA’s planning for the future supply of unobligated enriched uranium. This report examines (1) risks agencies and others have identified to the unobligated uranium supply chain and agency actions to mitigate those risks, and (2) the extent to which the Nuclear Fuel Working Group’s risk mitigation strategy incorporates desirable characteristics of a national strategy. GAO analyzed key NNSA and DOE planning documents and interviewed NNSA and other agency officials and industry representatives.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making three recommendations, including that DOE improve its cost estimate to support future funding requests for the proposed uranium reserve and ensure its implementation plan for the strategy addresses each of the desirable characteristics of a national strategy. DOE concurred with GAO’s recommendations.

For more information, contact at (202) 512-3821 or bawdena@gao.gov.

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    As of January 2021, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) had not established the Research Policy Board as required by the 21st Century Cures Act. The act requires OMB to establish the Board within 1 year of the December 13, 2016 enactment of the act. The Board is to provide information on the effects of regulations related to federal research requirements. OMB stated that it had not established the Board because of issues with the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) and other federal agencies’ full participation in the Board’s potential activities to develop or implement a modified approach to indirect cost policies. According to OMB, “the Board would necessarily delve into issues related to compliance burden and indirect cost reimbursement to entities that receive federal funding for research.” Specifically, OMB pointed to a statutory provision appearing in annual appropriations bills that it believes prohibits HHS and other agencies from taking action on issues that could implicate certain indirect cost provisions. According to OMB, this provision could, if continued in future bills, “complicate or even possibly prohibit HHS from participating in major elements of the Board’s process.” OMB stated that, without representation of a major research agency such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which is part of HHS, “OMB would not be equipped to meet the statutory goals of the Board.” However, HHS stated in October 2020 that the indirect cost provision would not prohibit NIH’s participation on the Board and that the department was not aware of any other appropriations law provision that would prohibit such participation. GAO has no basis to disagree with HHS’s position. The 21st Century Cures Act does not specifically direct the Board to examine issues related to indirect costs, and we identified other issues that may fall within the scope of the Board’s activities. For example, the act specifies five activities that the Board may conduct, including creating a forum for the discussion of research policy or regulatory gaps, and identifying regulatory process improvements and policy changes. The Board could consider examining these or other issues related to streamlining and harmonizing regulations and reducing administrative burden in federally funded research in accordance with the 21st Century Cures Act. By not having established the Board, OMB is missing opportunities for the Board to provide information on the effects of regulations related to requirements for federally funded research, and to make recommendations to harmonize and streamline such requirements. Further, OMB has limited time to establish the Board and the Board may have insufficient time to complete its work before the Board is set to terminate on September 30, 2021. The 21st Century Cures Act requires OMB to establish an advisory committee, to be known as the Research Policy Board, that is responsible for making recommendations on modifying and harmonizing regulation of federally funded research to reduce administrative burden. The Board is to consist of both federal and non-federal members and include not more than 10 members from federal agencies, including officials from OMB, the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), HHS, the National Science Foundation, and other departments and agencies that support or regulate scientific research, as determined by the OMB Director. The 21st Century Cures Act includes a provision for GAO to conduct an independent evaluation of the Board’s activities. This report examines the steps OMB has taken to establish the Board as required by the 21st Century Cures Act. GAO reviewed written responses and other information from OMB, HHS, and OSTP; the 21st Century Cures Act and other laws related to the Board and its establishment; relevant reports on issues related to administrative burden; and related documents such as memoranda and agency guidance. GAO submitted a draft report containing the results of its evaluation to Congress on December 10, 2020. Congress should consider extending the period of authorization for the Research Policy Board, giving OMB additional time to establish the Research Policy Board and complete its statutory mission under the 21st Century Cures Act. GAO recommends that OMB establish the Research Policy Board as mandated by the 21st Century Cures Act and report to Congress on the Board’s activities. OMB did not agree or disagree with this recommendation. We maintain that the evidence in this report shows the need for our recommendation. For more information, contact John Neumann at (202) 512-6888 or neumannj@gao.gov.
    [Read More…]
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    In Crime Control and Security News
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    In Space
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  • Man Convicted of Receiving, Soliciting, and Promoting Child Pornography
    In Crime News
    A federal jury convicted a Virginia man today for downloading images and videos depicting children as young as four years old being sexually abused and for utilizing the Darknet to solicit and promote child pornography.
    [Read More…]