Acting EM Assistant Secretary Jim Owendoff
Acting EM Assistant Secretary Jim Owendoff

EM Update recently spoke with new Acting EM Assistant Secretary Jim Owendoff on his vision and priorities for the EM program

You’ve had a lengthy career in the EM program. Based on your experience, where do you feel the program is today? 

There are several areas where we have made great progress. We have a strong workforce —from the union standpoint, the contractor standpoint and the federal standpoint. I think there continues to be an interest in getting things done. I think when people wake up in the morning, they certainly want to be able to work in a safe environment and also be able, at the end of the day, to feel good about the accomplishments they have made. 

I think we have a number of decisions that are teed up, and that’s one of the reasons for the 45-day review now underway. What I am looking at is how we can be more timely in our decision-making. That’s very important to me. (Read more about this effort in a separate story in this newsletter issue.)  

I believe that just by inherently making timely decisions, that in and of itself it reduces costs because you get on with implementing a particular decision. Certainly, I am always interested in reducing cost and reducing schedule. We go through that on our contracting approach where we accomplish our work via competitive contracts and then we look to have mechanisms with those contracts to have continuous competition in the subcontracting area to have cost-effective work done.

So that’s where I believe we are today.

Along with the 45-day review, what are some of your other priorities going forward? 

What I would like to be able to do is look at the decisions examined in the 45-day review in four categories:  Do It, Boil, Simmer, and Defer.  A good example is getting to glass for the direct-feed low activity waste (DFLAW) approach to tank waste treatment at Hanford. Some of the decisions needed now are getting the documented safety analysis completed and ensuring that we have the necessary permits, as well as ensuring from a cost-and-schedule standpoint that we’re on track. So that’s what I look at, especially as to where we need to place that idea of timely decisions.

As always, we need to be mindful of the budget. We’ll be working on the FY (fiscal year) 2019 budget in the next few months. So that’s our opportunity to not only look at where we need money but where we need certain policy decisions. As we’re working through that budget request, we need to ensure, for example, that we have adequate money for the liquid waste efforts down at Savannah River. We’ve made such an investment in the Salt Waste Processing Facility (SWPF) as well as the other liquid waste facilities, and we need to bring the SWPF online and we need to ensure that everything is in place to bring it online.

What do you see as potential opportunities for near-term success? 

I think across the EM complex, if you look at every site, there are opportunities for success. Certainly at Hanford, getting the Plutonium Finishing Plant (PFP) down is going to be a great accomplishment. Also at Hanford, for the cleanup along the River Corridor, getting the records of decision to guide cleanup and waste management activities in place is going to be a good accomplishment.  

At Oak Ridge, I see as a near-term success, what we’ve been able to do at the East Tennessee Technology Park (ETTP) and bringing those buildings down brings us closer to converting ETTP into a commercial-use industrial park. At Idaho, we are getting closer to having the Integrated Waste Treatment Unit (IWTU) up and running, hopefully in the next several months and start processing sodium-bearing waste. At Savannah River, we’re making progress in treating salt waste, bringing us closer to emptying the sites tank waste. In fact, each of our sites are making tremendous progress.

The new Administration has shown its support for the EM mission through measures such as the FY 2018 budget request, which is the largest for the EM program in a decade. How does that support and backing further help the EM program?

I think it demonstrates to the entire EM workforce, both federal and contractor, as well as to the local communities, the support from the Administration for the EM program to continue to make progress in our cleanup work. I think our job now, and always, is to be able to wring out efficiencies where we can, get things done and demonstrate that we can make effective use of those dollars. That is what I look at and a lot of my focus is looking at the effective execution of our $6.5 billion program. That is an awful lot of money, and we need to ensure that each dollar is being utilized efficiently and effectively.

Along with the 45-day review, another action you have taken is the creation of the new Office of Special Projects here at EM headquarters, headed up by former senior EM official Dae Chung with an initial focus on the Hanford Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant (WTP). What was your thinking and intent behind setting up that office?

The WTP is one of the largest projects within EM. It’s the largest project within the Department and it’s probably the largest project across the federal government. So with that, I felt we needed one individual that lives and breathes getting DFLAW up and running with a singular focus here at headquarters. Certainly the federal project director (FPD) has his job in ensuring that it gets accomplished, but here at headquarters, we need someone who is not only working from a resources standpoint, but ensuring that we bring the various offices here together at headquarters to ensure we’re really looking for any opportunities to clear away any hindrances and not waiting for those challenges to come up. Let’s be looking forward and resolve them ahead of time before they become an issue. 

I would like to see if we can make glass at Hanford earlier than 2022, where it is appropriate, or at least at this juncture.  We need to get ahead of the schedule, so when we do run into challenges during commissioning, we have built in some additional time to be able to resolve those challenges. So that’s what this office and Dae will do — a singular focus in working with the FPD and management at the Office of River Protection. 

With WTP being such a large part of EM and DOE, how much of an accomplishment will that be once DFLAW is operational?

I think we have seen within EM that we have the ability with these one-of-a-kind waste treatment facilities to complete construction and bring them online. We were able to get the depleted uranium hexafluoride (DUF6) plants at Paducah and Portsmouth up and running, though we have had some challenges with continuing to run them. With the IWTU, it was the next level of complexity and it has demonstrated that it has some issues.

The Salt Waste Processing Facility is looking like Parsons (our contractor) has done an excellent job of completing construction and starting commissioning, and it looks like we have learned that we need to pay some more attention to certain areas. The whole nuclear industry has atrophied so there has been that challenge of available materials, workforce, and engineering capabilities. But I think with the SWPF, we have turned that corner. 

At WTP, DFLAW will just be that next iteration. On the one hand it’s not as complex as the SWPF, but it is complex in the size of it and the material going through it there, as well as the complexity of the melters. It will be good for EM to be able to demonstrate that we can do that. It will be excellent for the state and the community, as well as for the Administration and Congress, and their confidence in providing us the money to proceed.

To wrap things up, what challenges do you see coming up? What are the things that keep you awake at night, so to speak?  

EM is target-rich as to challenges. First and foremost is the safety of our workers and the safety of the communities near our sites, both in terms of industrial safety as well as radiological safety and potential exposure. We need safe environments, safe work practices, and consideration for all workers. 

Another challenge is the tunnels at Hanford and the broader question of infrastructure. When you have something like the partial collapse of Plutonium Uranium Extraction Plant (PUREX) Tunnel 1 that occurred, you look at it and say, ‘Could that have been preventable?’ You look at the other facilities that we have that are older and are similar and the things that we should be doing. We know there is always that balance between looking at the current facilities and ensuring they are in a safe place and being able to make progress on projects like bringing PFP down to slab-on-grade, or what we’re trying to do at Portsmouth to D&D (deactivation and decommissioning) facilities there.

There is never enough money so we could say we want to go full on everything. Even if we had more money, there are still going to be competing priorities. You can’t do it all at once in a year or two years or five years. Some things just take time.