Nuclear Weapons:

Information on Safety Concerns with the Uranium Processing Facility

GAO-14-79R: Published: Oct 25, 2013. Publicly Released: Oct 25, 2013.

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David C. Trimble
(202) 512-3841
trimbled@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

The Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board (Safety Board) has raised concerns with the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) plans to construct the Uranium Processing Facility (UPF), and NNSA has taken steps to address many of these concerns. Specifically:

  • In 2009, NNSA--a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy (DOE)--decided to expedite the construction of the UPF by combining two major project milestones, deviating from the process established by DOE orders and standards for developing a key interim safety document, and instead developed alternative safety documentation. The interim safety document is to identify the potential accidents and hazards associated with the facility's operations and the controls employed to mitigate or prevent their impact. In 2010, the Safety Board, an independent executive branch agency that assesses safety conditions at DOE defense nuclear facilities, raised concerns about this approach, and a subsequent independent project review recommended that NNSA follow the safety document development process established by DOE orders and standards. NNSA then took action in 2011 to follow the established process, and Safety Board officials stated that NNSA's corrective actions addressed many of their concerns.
  • As part of its ongoing oversight, in June 2013 the Safety Board had identified 15 specific safety concerns with the UPF's design, and NNSA has agreed to take action to address 14 of these concerns. Safety Board staff and NNSA officials agreed that none of the 15 concerns should prevent the UPF from reaching its next project management milestone in 2015 as scheduled. In addition, on August 26, 2013, the Safety Board sent NNSA a project letter that identified 12 additional specific safety concerns and NNSA officials said they are currently reviewing the Safety Board's letter and preparing a response.
  • The Safety Board raised general concerns with NNSA's plans to defer the installation of some uranium processing capabilities into the UPF at a later date and after the UPF is operational. NNSA currently plans to install some uranium processing capabilities into the UPF in phases, after the building's exterior, support systems, and some processing capabilities have been completed. However, NNSA officials said that the agency does not plan to complete final design and safety work for the deferred capabilities until after the initial phase of the UPF is operational. Safety Board staff stated that this project execution strategy introduces safety-related risks that will challenge the project's ability to integrate safety into the design. In addition, Safety Board staff stated that performing a major modification to an operating nuclear facility can present safety issues if not carefully planned and executed. In response, NNSA officials have said that the UPF project team will need to conduct and document additional safety analyses to ensure that such modifications meet DOE's safety requirements.

Why GAO Did This Study

At the request of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development and, in accordance with the requirements contained in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, GAO is to report quarterly on the UPF. GAO's objective for this second quarterly report was to identify the concerns, if any, that the Safety Board has raised with the UPF and the actions, if any, NNSA has taken to address those concerns.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is currently not making any recommendations for congressional consideration or agency action.

For more information, contact David C. Trimble at (202) 512-3841 or trimbled@gao.gov.

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