Nuclear Weapons:

NNSA Should Adopt Additional Best Practices to Better Manage Risk for Life Extension Programs

GAO-18-129: Published: Jan 30, 2018. Publicly Released: Jan 30, 2018.

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The National Nuclear Security Administration manages programs that refurbish or replace nuclear weapons' aging components to ensure each weapon is safe, secure, and effective. Prior life extension programs have cost far more and taken years longer than expected.

We issued a series of recommendations over several years designed to improve management of these programs. Recently, NNSA adopted a new approach to better track and manage program spending, progress, and technology development. We reviewed this new approach and we recommend that NNSA adopt additional best practices to lower risk of cost growth, delays, and reduced performance.

A nuclear bomb is tested as part of a weapon life extension program at Sandia National Laboratories

A man is conducting tests on a vertical nuclear bomb inside a building.

A man is conducting tests on a vertical nuclear bomb inside a building.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Allison Bawden
(202) 512-3841
bawdena@gao.gov

 

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

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has implemented the use of earned value management (EVM) in three life extension programs (LEP) as part of its revised management approach. EVM is a management tool that measures the value of work accomplished in a given period and compares it with the planned value of work scheduled and the actual cost of work accomplished. To better measure program performance, NNSA requires its LEPs to implement an EVM system that meets the EVM national standard. Each of its LEPs has implemented, or is in the process of implementing, a program-level EVM system that incorporates cost, schedule, and earned value data from multiple, independent EVM systems maintained by contractors at different sites. However, NNSA has not adopted the best practice of having an independent team validate EVM systems against the national standard (see fig.), which could help the agency better manage risk. Without requiring validation of EVM systems, NNSA may not have assurance that its LEPs are obtaining reliable EVM data for managing their programs and reporting their status.

Best Practice for Validating Earned Value Management (EVM) Systems

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NNSA has begun implementing requirements for independently conducting technology readiness assessments (TRA) of LEP critical technologies, but it has not adopted a key best practice that could help the agency better manage risk for LEPs. A TRA is a systematic, evidence-based process that evaluates the maturity of hardware and software technologies critical to the performance of a larger system. NNSA recently established requirements for its programs to conduct independent TRAs of LEP critical technologies. The agency conducted a TRA in 2014 for one LEP in an early stage and subsequently revised its methodology for how its contractors are to assess the technology readiness of weapon system components. However, NNSA has not established specific benchmarks for technology readiness at LEP decision points, consistent with best practices. Without establishing such benchmarks, NNSA may not have assurance that its LEPs have taken appropriate risk mitigation steps to mature critical technologies to meet program cost and schedule commitments.

Why GAO Did This Study

Weapons in the U.S. nuclear stockpile are aging. NNSA and the Department of Defense undertake LEPs to refurbish or replace nuclear weapons' aging components. Prior LEPs experienced cost overruns, schedule delays, and scope reductions, and prior GAO reports identified the need for NNSA to use EVM and conduct TRAs to address program risks. In 2013, NNSA developed a management approach for LEPs that it regards as an improvement and currently manages three LEPs using its revised approach. NNSA and its contractors conduct the work associated with these LEPs at seven sites across the country.

GAO was asked to review NNSA's management of its LEPs using its revised approach. This report assesses the extent to which NNSA has implemented, consistent with best practices, the use of EVM and TRAs in its management of LEPs. GAO reviewed NNSA directives and compared them to relevant best practices; reviewed LEP documents and reports; and interviewed NNSA program officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations, including that NNSA require an independent team to validate contractor EVM systems used for LEPs and establish benchmarks for technology readiness at LEP decision points. NNSA generally agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Allison Bawden at (202) 512-3841 or bawdena@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NNSA should require an independent entity to validate that contractor EVM systems used for LEPs meet the EVM national standard. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NNSA should require an independent entity to conduct surveillance reviews of contractor EVM systems used for LEPs to ensure that they maintain compliance with the EVM national standard through program completion. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NNSA should require its programs to ensure that LEP critical technologies meet specific technology readiness level benchmarks at decision points, or otherwise document with program executive approval their rationale for not meeting these benchmarks. (Recommendation 3)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of NNSA should establish a requirement for NNSA management to document and justify key decisions based on a reconciliation of LEP cost estimates with the Office of Cost Estimating and Program Evaluation's independent cost estimates. (Recommendation 4)

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy: National Nuclear Security Administration

 

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