Fast Facts

In 2007, the Department of Energy's nuclear security agency started building a facility to dispose of unneeded weapons-grade plutonium. After cost increases, schedule delays, and nearly $6 billion in spending, Energy cancelled the project in 2018.

While this project was running, Energy took steps to address inexperience among its project management staff. As oversight improved, the project contractor's performance problems became clearer.

Energy has historically struggled to complete projects—in addition to this one—within cost and schedule estimates. We made 3 recommendations to improve how Energy uses the lessons learned from its projects.

Construction of the facility at the Savannah River Site in South Carolina began in 2007 and was cancelled in 2018.

An aerial photograph of the facility

An aerial photograph of the facility

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Energy's (DOE) National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) has strengthened its oversight of the Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility (MOX) project since 2011 and, as a result, began recognizing cost and schedule problems. The project, begun in 1997, was intended to dispose of large quantities of weapons-grade plutonium no longer required for national security. Prior to 2011, NNSA's project staff failed to recognize signs that the project would not be completed on time or within its approved cost. An independently conducted analysis, prepared in 2014 in response to a GAO recommendation, determined that NNSA staff did not recognize early problems because they were inexperienced in project management. To strengthen oversight, NNSA in late 2010 and 2011 began actions, such as conducting additional reviews and transferring oversight of the project to a newly established office specializing in project management. NNSA continued to identify the contractor's performance problems, such as the lack of credible, reliable cost and schedule data. These continued problems contributed to NNSA's decision to terminate the project.

DOE requires that project staff document and share project management lessons learned on capital asset projects like the MOX project, but not all lessons are to be documented consistently or shared in a timely manner. GAO found that DOE's and NNSA's offices document project management lessons learned differently and that not all of the documented lessons learned are readily accessible to other staff. Additionally, GAO found that DOE does not require that project staff share lessons learned for capital asset projects until the start of construction, which can occur many years after the start of the project. Under key practices, such lessons should be stored in a logical, organized manner, be easily retrievable, and be submitted in a timely manner (see fig.). By developing requirements that clearly define how and where project management lessons learned should be documented and requiring that the lessons be shared in a timely manner, DOE could improve its lessons-learned process and help improve the success of future capital asset projects. Also, for capital asset projects, DOE does not require the evaluation of the results of all corrective actions to respond to lessons learned to ensure that problems are resolved, consistent with key practices. By developing requirements to evaluate the effectiveness of corrective actions, DOE could better verify whether the actions had the intended outcome.

Key Practices of a Lessons-Learned Process

Key Practices of a Lessons-Learned Process

Why GAO Did This Study

The MOX project, located at DOE's Savannah River Site in South Carolina and overseen by NNSA, experienced significant cost increases and schedule delays following the start of construction in 2007. After spending nearly $6 billion, NNSA terminated the project in October 2018. While DOE and NNSA have made some recent progress, they have historically struggled to complete, within their original cost and schedule estimates, other major construction projects intended to help maintain the nuclear security complex.

GAO was asked to review issues related to oversight of the MOX project. This report examines (1) when NNSA's project management oversight processes recognized cost and schedule problems at the MOX project and the actions the agency took to address them and (2) the extent to which DOE requires that project management lessons learned from MOX and other projects be documented and shared. GAO reviewed agency documents, visited the MOX project, and interviewed DOE and NNSA officials and representatives of the MOX contractor.

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Recommendations

GAO is making three recommendations, including that DOE and NNSA develop requirements for defining how and where project management lessons learned for capital asset projects should be documented and shared routinely and in a timely manner, and for evaluating the effectiveness of corrective actions taken in response to lessons learned. DOE agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy, in coordination with DOE's Office of Project Management and NNSA's Office of Acquisition and Project Management, should develop requirements that clearly define how and where project management lessons learned for capital asset projects should be documented and saved to make them readily accessible across the department. (Recommendation 1)
Closed - Implemented
DOE concurred with GAO's recommendation. In September 2020, the Deputy Secretary of Energy issued a policy memorandum in advance of revising DOE Order 413.3B, Program and Project Management for the Acquisition of Capital Assets, which directs department staff to record identified project management lessons learned using a standard template developed by the Office of Project Management and enter the elicited lessons learned in the Office of Environment, Health, Safety and Security Lessons Learned Database. According to the policy memorandum, all department employees and contractors may gain access to this lessons learned repository.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy, in coordination with DOE's Office of Project Management and NNSA's Office of Acquisition and Project Management, should develop requirements for sharing project management lessons learned for capital asset projects from the beginning of a project (i.e., prior to the start of construction at CD-3) routinely and in a timely manner to improve DOE's ability to identify and evaluate problematic practices and positive experiences. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
DOE concurred with GAO's recommendation. In September 2020, the Deputy Secretary of Energy issued a policy memorandum in advance of revising DOE Order 413.3B, Program and Project Management for the Acquisition of Capital Assets, which directs those conducting peer reviews, or other reviews intended to meet the project peer review requirements in DOE Order 413.3B, to elicit lessons learned with potential department-wide implications and submit them into the department's lessons learned database. The lessons learned database will subsequently alert project management stakeholders, and others who elect to receive notices, of new lessons learned. In addition, DOE's Office of Project Management will then identify lessons learned with department-wide implications and, in collaboration with those that submitted the lessons learned, propose policy changes so future projects may benefit from those lessons.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy, in coordination with DOE's Office of Project Management and NNSA's Office of Acquisition and Project Management, should develop requirements for evaluating the effectiveness of corrective actions taken in response to project management problems for capital asset projects, with a focus on those lessons that necessitate the need for department-wide improvements. (Recommendation 3)
Open
DOE concurred with the recommendation. In September 2020, the Deputy Secretary of Energy issued a policy memorandum that assigned the Project Management Governance Board with the responsibility to evaluate the effectiveness of changes to department directives based on lessons learned with department-wide implications from capital asset projects with a total project cost of $750 million or more. This action, however, may not fully address the recommendation, in part because there may be some lessons learned with applicability department-wide from projects that do not meet this cost threshold. As of August 2021, we are continuing to monitor DOE's effort to assess whether the department takes additional actions consistent with this recommendation.

Full Report

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