What GAO Found
The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the nation’s only facility for disposal of certain defense-related nuclear waste. The Department of Energy (DOE) identified two root causes for cost increases and schedule delays in its project to install a new ventilation system at WIPP (see figure). The facility is currently operating at a reduced capacity because of ventilation issues in the underground waste disposal areas. The root causes DOE identified were (1) its contractor’s inexperience managing construction projects and (2) an inability to incentivize staff to work in Carlsbad. DOE also identified more specific problems with this ventilation project, and has taken corrective actions to address them. While some of these corrective actions may also help to address the root causes, the extent to which these actions will do so is unclear because DOE is not required to develop a corrective action plan for addressing the root causes and does not have a process to determine whether root causes have been sufficiently addressed. Without such a plan and process, DOE cannot ensure that root causes it identifies for cost increases and schedule delays in the WIPP ventilation project or other projects will not persist or recur.
The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Ventilation System Project at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico
DOE’s construction project to improve the ventilation system is part of its plans to ensure that WIPP can meet DOE’s anticipated needs for waste disposal. However, the department faces construction and regulatory risks that might delay its plans. For example, DOE may not be able to finish construction and start operating the ventilation system on time. In addition, DOE may not receive needed approvals from the state regulator and the Environmental Protection Agency if, for example, the department does not provide requested information on time. Department officials told GAO that DOE has not updated recently its WIPP risk register, which helps track risks and plan mitigation measures. Department guidance states that it should periodically evaluate and include emerging risks and mitigation strategies in the risk register because this information is used to update the schedule. Without these updates, DOE may not have an achievable WIPP schedule, which could in turn create shipping delays and cost increases for the sites that are generating the waste.
Why GAO Did This Study
DOE suspended operations at WIPP after two accidents in 2014 and resumed on a limited scale in 2017. In response to the accidents, DOE has a construction project to improve WIPP’s underground ventilation and allow full disposal operations to resume. However, DOE has encountered cost increases and schedule delays with the ventilation project.
The conference report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 included a provision for GAO to report on the operational status and a construction project at WIPP. This report examines (1) the extent to which DOE identified and addressed root causes for the ventilation system project’s cost increases and schedule delays, and (2) DOE’s plans to ensure WIPP can meet anticipated disposal needs, and what risks DOE may face.
GAO reviewed documents related to root causes and changes in project cost and schedule estimates, and interviewed DOE and contractor officials.
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- High-Performance Computing: NNSA Could Improve Program Management Processes for System Acquisitions
April 29, 2021What GAO Found The National Nuclear Security Administration’s (NNSA) analysis of alternatives (AOA) process for its $600 million El Capitan HPC acquisition did not fully follow agency policy that states that AOA processes should be consistent with GAO best practices, where possible, and any deviations must be justified and documented. According to GAO best practices, a reliable AOA process should meet four characteristics: it should be comprehensive, well documented, unbiased, and credible. As seen in the table, the AOA process for El Capitan partially met one of these characteristics and minimally met the other three. NNSA did not justify or document the deviations from these best practices, as required by NNSA policy. GAO also found that the AOA process was conducted by the contractor that manages the El Capitan acquisition program, contrary to agency policy and guidance stating that AOAs should be conducted by an independent entity. Without following AOA best practices where possible; justifying and documenting any deviations; and ensuring AOA processes are conducted by an independent entity, as required, NNSA cannot be assured of a reliable assessment of options for meeting critical mission needs. Extent to Which the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Met the Characteristics of a Reliable Analysis of Alternatives (AOA) Process AOA characteristic GAO assessment Example of deviation Comprehensive Partially met Cost estimates are incomplete and did not follow best practices. Well documented Minimally met The alternatives’ descriptions are not detailed enough for a robust analysis. Unbiased Minimally met NNSA had a predetermined solution, acquiring an HPC system, before performing the AOA process. Credible Minimally met The selection criteria appear to have been written for the preferred alternative. Source: GAO analysis of NNSA information. | GAO-21-194 GAO found that, in the second year of the El Capitan acquisition program’s 5-year acquisition life cycle, NNSA has fully implemented selected key practices related to program monitoring and control. However, NNSA has only partially implemented key practices related to requirements management. Specifically, El Capitan program officials did not update and maintain acquisition program documents to include current requirements. NNSA officials stated that once the program developed its program plan early in the program’s life cycle, they did not require the program to update and maintain that program plan. However, NNSA’s own program management policy requires programs to update program documents throughout the duration of the program. Without updating and maintaining El Capitan program documents to include current requirements, NNSA officials may be limited in their ability to ensure that all mission requirements are met. Why GAO Did This Study NNSA is responsible for maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile. To analyze the performance, safety, and reliability of nuclear weapons, it acquires high-performance computing (HPC) systems to conduct simulations. The latest system, El Capitan, is expected to be fully deployed by March 2024. The committee report accompanying the Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2019, includes a provision for GAO to review NNSA’s management of its Advanced Simulation and Computing program. This report examines, among other things, (1) the extent to which NNSA’s AOA process for the El Capitan acquisition met best practices and followed agency policy and guidance and (2) the extent to which NNSA is implementing selected acquisition best practices in carrying out the El Capitan acquisition program. GAO reviewed documents and interviewed NNSA officials and laboratory representatives involved in carrying out the AOA and acquisition processes.
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- Retirement Security: DOL Could Better Inform Divorcing Parties About Dividing Savings
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- Social Security Disability: Ticket to Work Helped Some Participants, but Overpayments Increased Program Costs
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- Small Business Research Programs: Agencies Should Further Improve Award Timeliness
October 14, 2021What GAO Found Most federal agencies that participate in the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs did not consistently issue timely awards to small businesses in fiscal year 2020. The Small Business Administration’s (SBA) SBIR/STTR policy directive recommends that most agencies issue such awards within 180 days of the closing date of the solicitation. On the one hand, timeliness across agencies has improved since fiscal year 2017. Agencies issued 69 percent of awards within the recommended time that year, compared to 82 percent of awards that we reviewed for fiscal year 2020. On the other hand, only nine of the 29 participating agencies were consistently on time in fiscal year 2020, meaning they issued at least 90 percent of their awards within 180 days. This lack of timeliness dates back at least 5 years: 20 agencies were routinely late during that period, issuing fewer than 90 percent of their awards on time for 3 or more of the 5 fiscal years since 2016 (see figure). Total Number and Value of Late Awards Issued by Routinely Late Agencies Nearly all of the agencies that were routinely late in issuing awards to small businesses have taken some steps to address risks to the timeliness of their awards. Such risks included not having standardized proposal review procedures and a lack of dedicated staff to issue awards. Agencies have taken some steps to improve timeliness by, for example, streamlining proposal reviews and the award contracting process. However, they have not fully addressed risks they identified or evaluated steps already taken and may continue to issue late awards until they do so. Although the Department of Defense (DOD) has taken some steps to improve timeliness, it has not established a required pilot program. According to officials, DOD has not done so, in part, because it would be too difficult to standardize practices across the department. GAO found that 12 of the 13 DOD participating agencies are not consistently issuing timely awards to small businesses. Without addressing the pilot program requirements, or by not reporting to Congress if the requirements are infeasible, DOD may be missing an opportunity to obtain technologies more quickly, as well as sustain small businesses that can provide such technologies. Why GAO Did This Study SBIR and STTR participating agencies awarded over $3 billion to small businesses in fiscal year 2020 to develop and commercialize new technologies. Timely issuance of these awards can affect the speed with which small businesses receive funds and begin work, according to the SBA. SBA’s SBIR/STTR policy directive provides time frames for notification and award issuance—90 days for award notification and 180 days for award issuance. The Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included a provision for GAO to review the timeliness of award notification and issuance. The Fiscal Year 2021 NDAA conference report included a provision for GAO to review instances of agencies not following through with awards. This report, GAO’s third, examines, among other things: (1) agencies’ timeliness in notification and issuance, (2) the extent to which agencies have addressed risks to award timeliness, and (3) the extent to which DOD established a pilot program to improve timeliness. GAO analyzed SBIR and STTR award data, reviewed documentation, interviewed SBA officials, and sent a questionnaire to all 29 participating agencies and select small businesses.