D. Dowd Muska


At DOE, the Dysfunction Runs Deep

June 02, 2011

Year after year, one federal bureaucracy maintains a level of incompetence so staggering, it shocks even the most cynical public-sector watchdogs.

That bureaucracy is the U.S. Department of Energy, and according to congressional auditors, it’s screwed up again.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently analyzed the DOE’s stewardship of helium-3, “a critical component of radiation detection equipment, including … monitors that are used to screen cargo and vehicles at ports and border crossings around the world to prevent nuclear material from being smuggled into the United States.” The gas, which also has industrial and research applications, is produced when tritium, an isotope of hydrogen that’s used in nuclear weapons, radioactively decays.

The New York Times summarized the GAO’s findings succinctly: “[O]ne arm of the [DOE] was selling [helium-3] six times as fast as another arm could accumulate it, and the two sides failed to communicate for years.” Now there’s a shortage of the gas, and the feds are scrambling to boost supplies and find alternatives.

Same old, same old. In 2000, John Kasich, currently the governor of Ohio but then a U.S. Representative from the center of the Buckeye State, explained that the department “suffers from a disjointed and incompatible set of missions -- from nuclear weapons security to civilian energy research to publicizing the benefits of home insulation. And it doesn’t seem to do any of them well.”

Created in 1977 -- thank you, Jimmy Carter -- the cabinet-level agency’s most important assignment is to clean up the monstrosity left behind by the Cold War’s nuclear-weapons complex. In the late 1980s, when the full scale of the hazardous-waste crisis could no longer be denied, DOE boss John S. Herrington estimated that remediation costs would be $150 billion. His figure was off a bit. The price tag has climbed to at least $300 billion, and progress has been abysmal.

Earlier this year, The Seattle Times examined the status of the DOE’s messiest mess: the Hanford Site, where the plutonium used in the bombing of Nagasaki was produced. Reporter Craig Welch found that “after nearly a quarter-century of preparation -- and cost estimates that have nearly tripled to $12.2 billion -- builders still haven’t resolved this project’s most vexing technical and safety issues.”

Nine out of every ten dollars spent by federal energy bureaucrats are given to contractors. In the GAO’s words, the DOE’s “record of inadequate management and oversight of contractors has left the department vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” In addition to funding consequence-free blundering by the politically powerful corporations and universities that run its facilities, the DOE showers cash on dodgy programs run by cities, states, and nonprofit organizations. The Obama “stimulus” package handed the department $41.7 billion. (That’s not a misprint.) A sizable chunk went to the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which claims to enable “low-income families to permanently reduce their energy bills by making their homes more energy efficient.”

According to Citizens Against Government Waste, “Since its expansion, WAP has left in its wake reports of substandard work, abandoned projects, and fraud. In October 2010, the San Antonio Express News uncovered e-mails indicating that one of the community action agencies charged with administering the stimulus funds asked its contractors to ‘submit invoices for work that hadn’t been done and falsify documents to cover their tracks.’ In December 2010, a Tennessee state audit revealed deficiencies including shoddy workmanship and poor or non-existent documentation on whether applicants met income eligibility requirements on more than half of the homes weatherized … .  Delaware, which received $13.7 billion of stimulus, has also reported mismanagement of stimulus funds, but is the only state where WAP has been suspended. Other states such as Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have also experienced problems with fraud and mismanagement.”

For over three decades, DOE has squandered billions on renewable-energy boondoggles pushed by ignorant politicians, reporters, academics, and entertainers. Yet petroleum-based fuels continue to dominate transportation, and coal, nuclear, natural gas, and hydroelectric plants still generate nearly all the nation’s electricity. The most significant energy innovation in our lifetimes -- hydraulic fracturing of natural gas in shale deposits -- was not funded by the DOE, but an indefatigable Texas entrepreneur.

America needs a Department of Energy like it needs a Department of Clothes. Nuclear bombs belong under the Pentagon’s control. Hazardous-waste cleanup is a job for the EPA and state environmental agencies. And energy research and development should be pursued by the private sector.

The department has it coming. It’s time for the DOE to die.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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