Yucca Mountain:

Persistent Quality Assurance Problems Could Delay Repository Licensing and Operation

GAO-04-460: Published: Apr 30, 2004. Publicly Released: Apr 30, 2004.

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The Department of Energy (DOE) must obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to construct a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. In licensing, a quality assurance program helps ensure that the information used to demonstrate the safety of the repository is defensible and well documented. DOE developed a corrective action plan in 2002 to fix recurring problems with the accuracy of such information. This report assesses the status of corrective actions and the adequacy of DOE's plan to measure the effectiveness of actions taken.

DOE has reportedly implemented most of the actions in its 2002 corrective action plan, but recent audits and assessments have identified lingering quality problems with data, models, and software and continuing management weaknesses. Audits revealed that some data sets could not be traced back to their sources, model development and validation procedures were not followed, and some processes for software development and validation were inadequate or not followed. DOE believes these problems have not affected the technical basis of the project; however, they could adversely affect the licensing process. Recent assessments identified continuing management weaknesses in the areas of roles and responsibilities, quality assurance policies and procedures, and a work environment that did not foster employee confidence in raising concerns without fear of reprisal. NRC has acknowledged DOE's effectiveness in identifying quality problems, but recently concluded that quality problems could delay the licensing process. DOE cannot assess the effectiveness of its 2002 plan because the performance goals to assess management weaknesses lack objective measurements and time frames for determining success. The goals do not specify the amount of improvement expected, how quickly the improvement should be achieved, or how long the improvement should be sustained before the problems can be considered corrected. DOE recently developed a measurement tool that incorporates and revises some of the goals from the action plan, but most of the revised goals continue to lack the necessary time frames needed to determine whether the actions have corrected the recurring problems. A recently completed DOE review of the 2002 plan found that the corrective actions have been fully implemented. However, the review also noted the effectiveness of the actions could not be evaluated because many of the plan's goals lacked the level of objectivity and testing needed to measure effectiveness.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE disagreed with both of our recommendations. However, we issued a follow up report, GAO-06-313, in March 2006, which reiterated our recommendations from GAO-04-460. In commenting on 06-313, DOE accepted our recommendations. By doing so, DOE has changed its mind and has in effect accepted our recommendations from 04-460. Subsequent actions taken by DOE in response to our QA reports are documented in form 66 for 06-313.

    Recommendation: To better evaluate the effectiveness of management actions in correcting recurring quality problems, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, to revise the performance goals in the 2002 action plan to include quantifiable measures of the performance expected and time frames for achieving and maintaining this expected level of performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE disagreed with both of our recommendations. However, we issued a follow up report, GAO-06-313, in March 2006, which reiterated our recommendations from GAO-04-460. In commenting on 06-313, DOE accepted our recommendations. By doing so, DOE has changed its mind and has in effect accepted our recommendations from 04-460. Subsequent actions taken by DOE in response to our QA reports are documented in form 66 for 06-313.

    Recommendation: To better evaluate the effectiveness of management actions in correcting recurring quality problems, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management, to close the 2002 plan once sufficient evidence shows that the recurring quality assurance problems and management weaknesses that are causing them have been successfully corrected.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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