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The Energy Department is still paying off a massive tab from a bomb dropped 70 years agoby Joce Sterman, Alex Brauer

WATCH | The Department of Energy is being put on blast because of the way it's managing the cost of cleaning up nukes for projects including a bomb dropped more than 70 years ago. The tab is MASSIVE.

When it comes to environmental clean-up projects, the Department of Energy is carrying a huge tab. And the cost of what the government calls "environmental liabilities" has landed the DOE on the radar of government watchdogs who are questioning the way work is being done to eliminate waste from projects launched as far back as when Franklin Roosevelt was president.

The bomb dropped on Nagasaki happened so long ago, it's best depicted in black and white footage with an old time announcer calling the action. But more than 70 years later, taxpayers are still paying the tab for the clean-up of the nukes that helped end World War II. And it's massive. Just ask David Trimble with the Government Accountability Office. 

Lately he's been monitoring what the DOE has been doing to mop up nuclear work at places like the Hanford site in Washington state, which created plutonium until the end of the Cold War.

“This mission is much bigger than many people realized and we need to do a better job managing it, or the size of this liability will eat us alive,” Trimble said during a recent interview conducted for Circa's partner, Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson.

The GAO is monitoring the clean-up from a cost and management perspective, with Hanford getting special mention in the agency's discussion of the tremendous cost of environmental liabilities in the 2017 High Risk Series. 

WATCH | The GAO talks about environmental liabilities in its High Risk Series, which highlights programs operating with the potential for fraud, waste and in this case, what Trimble calls "mismanagement."

Circa's been watching Hanford too, spending months investigating the impact of the clean-up project there. We discovered workers who claim they were hurt helping to clean up millions of gallons of radioactive waste that’s been stored for decades.

Trimble understands the complexity of the work being done nationwide. “The cleanup challenge is huge. The mission is technically complex. It’s expansive," he explained. "DOE has a big job on its hands. Everyone knows and understands that. I think what’s surprising to us when we’ve looked at this over time is that we haven’t been able to get a handle on this issue.”

According to the GSO, DOE's liabilities totaled $372 billion last year. Hanford and another site, Savannah River, make up half of that stunning figure. 

The $372 billion in liabilities isn't even a complete estimate according to the GAO. Trimble explained the figure counts not just the work that's actively being done now; but also the cost projected down the road because the work isn't being done right.

“It’s a huge amount of money the government could be spending better. You’re missing opportunities to save billions and billions of dollars,” Trimble said.

The biggest concern from the GAO when it comes to the DOE's efforts is on what it calls "risk based decision making." Basically the agency is concerned that the DOE isn't focusing first on the biggest threats to people and the environment as it makes decisions about the process. With this kind of work, Trimble says, there's little time and money to spare.

Everyone needs to take a hard look at their operation and look for opportunities to do things smarter, better, quicker, cheaper

David Trimble, Government Accountability Office

Circa repeatedly offered the DOE the opportunity to talk on-camera about its clean-up efforts and the GAO's report and recommendations. The agency said it has made substantial progress in its efforts to clean up 107 sites across the country. 

The agency pointed to challenges including an incomplete characterization of the waste it is tasked with eliminating, a regulatory structure that was created after the waste itself was made and insufficient resources to accomplish the clean-up in the most efficient way.