Yucca Mountain:

Quality Assurance at DOE's Planned Nuclear Waste Repository Needs Increased Management Attention

GAO-06-313: Published: Mar 17, 2006. Publicly Released: Mar 23, 2006.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Mark E. Gaffigan
(202) 512-6877
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

The Department of Energy (DOE) is working to obtain a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to construct a nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. The project, which began in the 1980s, has been beset by delays. In a 2004 report, GAO raised concerns that persistent quality assurance problems could further delay the project. Then, in 2005, DOE announced the discovery of employee e-mails suggesting quality assurance problems, including possible falsification of records. Quality assurance, which establishes requirements for work to be performed under controlled conditions that ensure quality, is critical to making sure the project meets standards for protecting public health and the environment. GAO was asked to examine (1) the history of the project's quality assurance problems, (2) DOE's tracking of these problems and efforts to address them since GAO's 2004 report, and (3) challenges facing DOE as it continues to address quality assurance issues within the project.

DOE has had a long history of quality assurance problems at the Yucca Mountain project. In the 1980s and 1990s, DOE had problems assuring NRC that it had developed adequate plans and procedures related to quality assurance. More recently, as it prepares to submit a license application for the repository to NRC, DOE has been relying on costly and time-consuming rework to resolve lingering quality assurance problems uncovered during audits and after-the-fact evaluations. DOE announced, in 2004, that it was making a commitment to continuous quality assurance improvement and that its efforts would be tracked by performance indicators that would enable it to assess progress and direct management attention as needed. However, GAO found that the project's performance indicators and other key management tools were not effective for this purpose. For example, the management tools did not target existing areas of concern and did not track progress in addressing them. The tools also had weaknesses in detecting and highlighting significant problems for management attention. DOE continues to face quality assurance and other challenges. First, DOE is engaged in extensive efforts to restore confidence in scientific documents because of the quality assurance problems suggested in the discovered e-mails between project employees, and it has about 14 million more project e-mails to review. Second, DOE faces quality assurance challenges in resolving design control problems associated with its requirements management process--the process for ensuring that high-level plans and regulatory requirements are incorporated into specific engineering details. Problems with the process led to the December 2005 suspension of certain project work. Third, DOE continues to be challenged to manage a complex program and organization. Significant personnel and project changes initiated in October 2005 create the potential for confusion over roles and responsibilities--a situation DOE found to contribute to quality assurance problems during an earlier transition.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has improved the Yucca Mountain Project's quality assurance program by (1) instituting new more frequent and more rigorous monthly program review meetings, chaired by the program director, that focus directly on issues of concern to management and (2) developing four new high-level performance indicators that replace the roughly 250 indicators used in the previous performance indicator panel.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the project's management tools and to improve the effectiveness of DOE's efforts to monitor performance in key areas at the Yucca Mountain project, including quality assurance, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to, to the extent practicable, make analyses and indicators of performance consistent over time so that trends or progress can be accurately identified and, where changes to analyses or indicators are made for compelling reasons, provide a clear history of the changes and their impact on measuring progress.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has restructured the Yucca Mountain Project's trend evaluation process by (1) creating new procedures, organizations, and working groups to analyze program trends; (2) appointing a new program manager to oversee this process; (3) changing the scope of the reports to monitor and synthesize trends projectwide; and (4) creating new categories of trends to ensure the significance of trends is accurately represented.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the project's management tools and to improve the effectiveness of DOE's efforts to monitor performance in key areas at the Yucca Mountain project, including quality assurance, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to establish quality guidelines for trend evaluation reports to ensure sound analysis when reporting problems for management's attention. Such guidelines should address, among other things, having reliable and complete data and appropriate benchmarks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has improved the Yucca Mountain Project's quality assurance program by (1) instituting new more frequent and more rigorous monthly program review meetings, chaired by the program director, that focus directly on issues of concern to management and (2) developing four new high-level performance indicators that replace the roughly 250 indicators used in the previous performance indicator panel.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the project's management tools and to improve the effectiveness of DOE's efforts to monitor performance in key areas at the Yucca Mountain project, including quality assurance, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to base future management tools, such as the trend evaluation reports, on projectwide analysis of problems, unless there are compelling reasons for a lesser scope.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has conducted additional reviews and concluded that the Yucca Mountain Project's corrective action program--a key component of the quality assurance framework--was not effectively implemented, primarily because senior management had failed to recognize the significance of repeated internal and external reviews (including those by GAO) and did not aggressively act to correct the problem. DOE has subsequently made significant changes to the corrective action program by rewriting the program's procedures and creating new teams of senior program managers to implement them. Most importantly, DOE has taken direct control of the corrective action program away from its management and operations contractor and has placed the Yucca Mountain project's deputy director in charge.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the project's management tools and to improve the effectiveness of DOE's efforts to monitor performance in key areas at the Yucca Mountain project, including quality assurance, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to reassess the coverage that the management tools provide for the areas of concern identified in the Management Improvement Initiatives and ensure that performance in these important areas is effectively monitored, especially in light of the more recent condition reports and associated cause analyses, trend reports, and other reviews indicating continuing problems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOE has improved the Yucca Mountain Project's quality assurance program by (1) instituting new more frequent and more rigorous monthly program review meetings, chaired by the program director, that focus directly on issues of concern to management and (2) developing four new high-level performance indicators that replace the roughly 250 indicators used in the previous performance indicator panel.

    Recommendation: To strengthen the project's management tools and to improve the effectiveness of DOE's efforts to monitor performance in key areas at the Yucca Mountain project, including quality assurance, the Secretary of Energy should direct the Director, Office of Civilian Radioactive Waste Management to focus the management tools' rating categories on the significance of the monitored condition, not on a judgment of the need for management action.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Aug 11, 2014

Jul 17, 2014

Jul 11, 2014

Jun 23, 2014

Jun 9, 2014

Jun 5, 2014

May 30, 2014

May 16, 2014

May 15, 2014

May 7, 2014

Looking for more? Browse all our products here