NNSA Identifies Culprit Responsible for UPF Design Fiasco—the Software Did It!

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Feb 18, 2013 Comments Off on NNSA Identifies Culprit Responsible for UPF Design Fiasco—the Software Did It! orepa


When three nonviolent peace activists breached the fences at the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex last July (Transform Now Plowshares), it cost the government somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million dollars, not counting numerous investigations, to address the security deficiencies that were revealed by the incursion. Names were named, some management heads rolled or were reassigned, and the security contractor was sacked.

Two months later, when the National Nuclear Security Administration at the same Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex announced it had discovered, after spending $500 million dollars, its 80% complete design for the Uranium Processing Facility was fatally flawed—the building was not big enough for the equipment it would have to hold—it was fair to ask who would be held accountable. That was the essence of the question asked several times by the Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board at a public hearing on October 2, 2012 when the “space/fit issue” was disclosed. The Safety Board’s question was not answered in October; it was taken “for the record.”

NNSA eventually provided an answer to the Safety Board and an unclassified version of the response has been provided to the public.

So—who was responsible for the “space/fit” issue?


That is one of the key findings of the root cause analysis performed by NNSA (the “after action fact finding review”). And that’s as close as the NNSA comes to fingering the responsible parties.

The review listed seven causes in all. Taken separately and together they add up to one thing—a stunning failure of management, repeatedly and at multiple levels. The “space/fit” issue was embedded in the design in the beginning, the analysis found, and that problem was compounded by several management failures.

> Management failed to coordinate work between several teams

> Management failed to ask others for help or to listen to outside suggestions

> Management failed to apply basic engineering principles

> Management relied on software with an inherent flaw

> Management screwed up in ways we can’t even begin to describe

Happily for this management team, none of these failures was the responsibility of anyone actually drawing a salary for NNSA or the subcontractors. The Safety Board was assured the management and contracting teams for the UPF project would remain in place to assure continuity even as the overall Management & Operations contract at Y12 changes hands, sort of. One half of the current M&O contract team joins with Lockheed Martin to form half of the new M&O contract team.

The public and Safety Board are left to wonder if an independent analysis of the root causes of the UPF design fiasco might have been able to identify actual personnel who bore responsibility for the $500 million screw up.

Here are the official findings of the “AAFFR” conducted by NNSA.

• premature establishment of the building footprint. (translation: We were wrong from the git-go.)

• less than adequate integration between design groups—subcontractor to subcontractor, subcontractor to M&O and within the M&O (translation: Big projects are so complicated—who could be expected to manage all that?)

• Late use of off-project resources to seek a solution. (translation: Groups like the Safety Board, the General Accounting Office and OREPA had raised issues about management competence repeatedly but were ignored.)

• Ineffective risk management of known space margin risks. (translation: Oh, right. Measure twice, cut once. Fundamental rule.)

• Ineffective space margin management. (You think?)

• Poor management of the 3-dimensional modeling tool that allowed multiple uses without centralized control. (translation: It was the software!)

• Weaknesses in Systems Engineering Integration (processes and procedures). (translation: We can’t even begin to describe the rest of it. It was just a mess.)

The Safety Board’s public record also acknowledges for the first time the design team was in the homestretch before the space/fit issue was noticed; NNSA says the design was 79% complete before anyone got out the tape measure.

NNSA also provided the Safety Board with the steps taken to address the causes; employing a competent management team does not appear to be among them. Exercising bureaucraspeak to obfuscate does. And the possible problems arising from changing contractors in the middle of a major construction project? Not to worry: “Ongoing contract transition facilitates an opportune juncture for upgrading Systems Engineering processes and procedures.”

The UPF project is not too big to fail. But it is, apparently, too big to manage properly, and big enough that no one will be held accountable.