Yucca Mountain:

DOE's Planned Nuclear Waste Repository Faces Quality Assurance and Management Challenges

GAO-06-550T: Published: Apr 25, 2006. Publicly Released: Apr 25, 2006.

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James E. Wells, Jr
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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 2004, GAO raised concerns that persistent quality assurance problems could further delay the project. Then, in 2005, DOE announced discovery of employee e-mails suggesting quality assurance problems. 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. This testimony, which summarizes GAO's March 2006 report (GAO-06-313), provides information on (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 earlier problem areas, such as confusion over roles and responsibilities, to reoccur.

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