Nuclear Nonproliferation:

Better Information Needed on Results of National Nuclear Security Administration's Research and Technology Development Projects

GAO-17-210: Published: Feb 3, 2017. Publicly Released: Feb 3, 2017.

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Shelby S. Oakley
(202) 512-3841
oakleys@gao.gov

 

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NNSA manages research and technology development projects intended to help stop nuclear proliferation. What does it have to show for its $1 billion investment on these projects in fiscal years 2012–2015? There has been progress, but NNSA hasn't tracked or documented results consistently.

We looked at a sample of 91 projects. Of those, 88 had made technological progress by, for example, building instrument hardware. Of those, 33 were transitioned to users for further development or use, and 17 of those are currently in use. We recommended that NNSA consistently track and document its project results.

Selected National Nuclear Security Administration Research and Technology Development Projects that Resulted in Advanced, Transitioned, and Deployed Technologies

Nested area chart showing 91 sample projects, of which 88 advanced, 33 transitioned, and 17 deployed

Nested area chart showing 91 sample projects, of which 88 advanced, 33 transitioned, and 17 deployed

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Shelby S. Oakley
(202) 512-3841
oakleys@gao.gov

 

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

What GAO Found

The full extent to which research and technology development projects managed by two programs in the National Nuclear Security Administration's (NNSA) Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation (DNN) have resulted in advanced (progressed technologies or science supporting them), transitioned (provided to users for further development or deployment), or deployed (used in the field) technologies is unclear because NNSA does not consistently track and document all of these outcomes. Specifically, the DNN Research and Development (DNN R&D) and Nonproliferation and Arms Control (NPAC) programs track and document technology advancements resulting from their projects, such as in project reports. However, NNSA officials acknowledged that DNN R&D—by far the larger program—does not consistently track and document whether its projects result in technologies transitioned to or deployed by end users. In contrast, the NPAC program tracks and documents these project outcomes. By not consistently tracking and documenting technology transition and deployment outcomes, NNSA is unable to demonstrate the full results of its projects. GAO gathered information from various sources on a sample of 91 projects. Of these, 88 projects advanced technologies by, for example, building instrument hardware or developing models for data analysis; the other 3 did not advance technologies but assessed potential applications of existing technologies. Among the 88 projects that advanced technologies, 33 also resulted in technologies being transitioned, including software used to analyze nuclear detonations. Finally, of these 33 projects, 17 also resulted in deployed technologies, including an enrichment monitoring tool used in Iran and space-based nuclear detonation sensors. Reasons that some technologies in the sample did not move beyond the advancement or transition stage included that the technology needed further development or evaluation before being used.

Limitations with the clarity of the DNN R&D program's publicly reported performance measures make them difficult to interpret, potentially hindering users' ability to determine the program's progress; better documentation of project performance against baseline targets may enhance NNSA's performance assessments. The DNN R&D program's performance measures have clarity limitations because they do not, for example, define measurement criteria or provide context justifying how the program determined that it met its performance targets; this may cause external users of the measures, including Congress, to have difficulty interpreting NNSA's assessment of performance. In a December 2011 report, GAO recommended that NNSA clarify its publicly reported measures for DNN's R&D program. GAO continues to believe that NNSA should do so. Regarding project-level performance, NNSA uses project plans to establish baseline targets for projects' scope and completion date, and tracks progress by communicating with project managers and reviewing documents such as quarterly and final project reports. However, NNSA officials said that final project reports do not document their assessment of performance against baseline targets and that there is no common template for final project reports, which GAO confirmed in a review of several final project reports. Documenting such assessments could enhance NNSA's ability to assess project performance against goals, consistent with federal internal control standards.

Why GAO Did This Study

Nuclear proliferation is a national security threat. DNN's two research and technology development programs develop technical solutions to prevent nuclear proliferation. From fiscal years 2012 through 2015, these programs obligated over $1.1 billion on 511 projects. The DNN R&D program obligated over $1 billion of this amount.

A House report included a provision for GAO to review the programs. This report evaluates, among other objectives, (1) the extent to which projects managed by NNSA's research and technology development programs resulted in advanced, transitioned, or deployed nonproliferation technologies and (2) how NNSA measures the performance of its research and technology development programs and projects.

GAO reviewed documents on a non-generalizable sample of 91 research and technology development projects, selected from all program areas to include projects with the largest amount of funding and to capture a broad range of the programs' technical functions. GAO also reviewed DNN's program objectives and publicly reported performance measures and interviewed NNSA officials and technology users at other agencies.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that NNSA consistently track and document results of DNN R&D projects and document assessments of final project results against baseline performance targets. NNSA neither agreed nor disagreed with the first recommendation and partially agreed with the second, but agreed to take actions in response to both recommendations.

For more information, contact Shelby S. Oakley at (202) 512-3841 or oakleys@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 required the Department of Energy's Administrator for Nuclear Security to track and document, for efforts that are not focused on basic research, the technologies and capabilities developed by the Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Research and Development (DNN R&D) program to better understand whether such technologies are transitioned to end users or deployed. This congressional direction mirrored GAO's recommendation. Subsequently, in February 2018, NNSA's Assistant Deputy Administrator for the DNN R&D program reported to GAO that, in response to the recommendation, his office had completed a full review of all 441 projects reviewed in the GAO report. The response included documentation on the number of projects that the DNN R&D program determined had been deployed to a mission partner or transitioned to a development partner, as well as the number of projects that had advanced technologies or had been retired or terminated.

    Recommendation: The NNSA Administrator should direct the DNN R&D program to track and document the transitioned and deployed technologies that result from its research and technology development projects, to the extent practicable.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 required the Department of Energy's Administrator for Nuclear Security, in assessing projects within the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation's Research and Development (DNN R&D) program and the Office's Nonproliferation and Arms Control program, to compare the status of each project, including the final results of such projects, to baseline targets and goals established in the initial project plan. This congressional direction mirrored GAO's recommendation. In a February 2018 memorandum, NNSA's Assistant Deputy Administrator for the DNN R&D program reported that, in response to the GAO recommendation, the program is including new metrics at the unclassified level in new technology roadmaps under development for fiscal years 2019 through 2026. The memorandum also stated that the DNN R&D program has implemented a new requirement for Program Managers to complete a "Project Close Out Summary Report" that must be completed as part of project close out procedures and will be approved at the Office Director level. According to the memorandum, the Project Close-Out Summary Report is specifically designed to address GAO recommendations on tracking and documenting the extent of nonproliferation technology advancement, transition, and deployment. Lastly, the memorandum stated that a template will be promulgated to all national laboratories to guide the content of final reports (already required of all research projects) and ensure that changes from initial baseline through the DNN R&D progressive baseline approach is fully documented.

    Recommendation: The NNSA Administrator should direct the DNN R&D and NPAC programs to document, using a common template or other means, their assessment that compares the final results of each project against the baseline targets established in each project's initial project plan.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

 

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