The most recent report of the Government Accountability Office sounds like standard, mind-numbing bureaucratic blah-blah-blah: Technology Development Efforts for the Uranium Processing Facility. But for anyone who might be interested in figuring out exactly how the UPF Project in Oak Ridge has wasted a billion dollars and has virtually nothing to show for it, the nineteen page report provides remarkable insights.
There is a lot of detail in the report about specific technology challenges related to the UPF, so the title is perfectly appropriate. But the chief insight in the report is deeper—it is that management problems that lie behind the failed UPF project have not been corrected. They not only haven’t gotten better, they have gotten worse. They persist and they plague virtually every aspect of the project.
Among other things a perceptive reader will find in the report:
• Management has failed to “adequately address” two of the key findings made by the GAO in 2010.
1] NNSA refuses to use industry best practices which require technology development to Readiness Level 7 before incorporating technology into designs—in other words, they are making irreversible commitments to the design of the building without knowing if the stuff they are designing it for will work.
2] Management refuses to provide any reality-based cost or schedule performance baselines to Congress.
• Management can’t seem to tell a cart from a horse. Plan after plan (each costing hundreds of millions of dollars) are being prepared for the UPF despite the fact that key pieces of information about technology needs—whether the technology will work, whether it can be used safely, how much space equipment will require, how much utility infrastructure will be needed—remain unknown.
• When necessary, management has painted an overly-rosy picture of its capacity and progress—an independent assessment of the “readiness” of new technologies found NNSA inflated the readiness assessment level for six of the nine technologies under development. Taken with NNSA’s persistent low-balling of the cost estimates for the UPF, it is clear that management has consistently misled Congress about the UPF Project
• Management does not recognize these persistent failures as problems at all. Despite the disastrous results—a now abandoned $500million design plan that was too small for the equipment, and a second $500million plan NNSA is backing away from—NSSA’s current plan is to repeat the failed process.
When NNSA first decided to leapfrog over some fundamental questions, like “Will this technology work?” and to compress DOE’s usual planning process by combining critical decision points, and to gloss over safety concerns and ignore requirements to integrate safety into the plans from the ground up, and to throw its hands up in the air when asked for legitimate cost projections, a number of agencies and organizations raised red flags. The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, the GAO, the Office of Health, Safety and Security, the Inspector General’s Office, the Project on Government Oversight, the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability and the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance all went on the record with concerns. But no one could prove in advance the NNSA scheme was a recipe for failure.
The time for speculation has passed. We now know every one of those decisions was a mistake—they’ve cost at least a billion dollars, dramatically crippled the original UPF vision, and created a schedule crisis for the NNSA in Oak Ridge. The existing Uranium Processing Facilities cannot continue to operate safely for the dozen years it will take to build the UPF. Finding an interim solution will require hundreds of millions of dollars and significant compromises on safety. It will also delay action on construction of a facility the United States will actually need in 2030—a facility to dismantle the thousands of thermonuclear warheads retired from the US stockpile.
The latest GAO report reveals a team—NNSA and contractors—and a culture that are oblivious to the breadth and depth of their problems. Despite repeated failures, they continue to employ the same management practices and expect a different outcome. The new UPF is being designed around technology that does not exist or has not been proven to work. Safety questions are being deferred. Cost estimates are pulled out of thin air. Industry-standard planning practices are being modified in ways that undercut their very purpose.
In January of this year, NNSA sought to buy more time by hitting the re-set button. “Independent” experts (all DOE or contractor employees) were appointed to a secret “Red Team,” which was charged with developing “alternatives” to the UPF. The Red Team report has been submitted to NNSA Acting Administrator Bruce Held but has not been made public.
At this point it is impossible to imagine NNSA reforming itself; it lives in a culture of management incompetence which permeates every major project NNSA undertakes. The UPF is only the latest and perhaps the most glaring example. NNSA’s idea of taking responsibility is to congratulate itself for identifying its problems after wasting only half a billion dollars.
And why should NNSA reform? To date, Congress has let the NNSA get away with it. Money continues to be shoveled at the UPF even when it has no project plan—$300 million this year and $335 slated for next year. There is no incentive at all to change its way of doing business: Congress didn’t even hold hearings on the $500 million UPF space/fit fiasco.
Compounding the challenges at the UPF is the change in managing contractors at Y12. The problems of B&W Y12 will soon become the problems on Consolidated Nuclear Security LLC, providing additional room for excuses as challenges are re-sorted and schedules slip further.
The United States cannot afford to continue mindlessly flushing hundreds of millions of dollars down the UPF Bomb Plant To Nowhere drain. Members of Congress who approve the UPF budget need to be held accountable for the waste–there is abundant evidence that the NNSA and the UPF management team can not productively spend that money. For those whose bent is national security, who believe the nation must maintain its uranium processing capabilities and who would prioritize that over an investment in dismantlement facilities, the conclusion should be the same: if you truly want the UPF built, you need to find someone else to do it. The only rational reason to continue to employ the same management structure is if you simply want to funnel billions of taxpayer dollars from the Treasury to private contractors.