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Senators question competitiveness of Energy Department contract process

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Forrestal Building, Washington DC

The James Forrestal Building, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C.

Some lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are worried the U.S. Department of Energy and its nuclear-weapons arm are not “maximizing” competition when it comes to major, often multibillion-dollar, contracts.

The competitiveness concerns, questions and follow-up instructions were tucked into one of the many fiscal year 2021 funding bills unveiled Tuesday by a Senate committee.

While not illegal or prohibited, the Senate appropriations panel mentioned in its $51.8 billion Energy and Water Development package, “The committee notes the department and National Nuclear Security Administration consistently awards large contracts, such as their management and operating contracts and contracts for cleanup and construction, to a relatively small number of companies.”

In particular, senators are interested in a review of recent contract awards and the spectrum of companies bidding; how exactly winners are chosen; and barriers to entry and other snags companies often hit or must clear.

The nuclear-cleanup, -weapons and -security fields are, broadly speaking, highly specialized and complex. A coterie of established companies lead the pack; pursuing a significant – perhaps decade-long – management-and-operations contract is no cheap task and demands long-term planning and wherewithal. Breaking into the industry can be daunting.

Some firms once in the business have left. Others have joined forces, effectively draining the competitive pool by consolidation. And some companies have their hands in multiple pots. Amentum, for example, is involved at several Energy Department installations, including the Savannah River Site south of Aiken.

“The committee,” reads an explainer accompanying the Senate's energy and water bill, “recognizes that these are interrelated and complex issues.”

Both the DOE’s cleanup office, Environmental Management, and the National Nuclear Security Administration operate at the Savannah River Site. Amentum leads Savannah River Remediation, the site's liquid-waste contractor.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, is a member of the appropriations committee.

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