Fast Facts

The National Nuclear Security Administration has facilities to process lithium—a key material in nuclear weapons. However, these facilities have deteriorated and NNSA has proposed a new facility to meet the demand for lithium.

We found that NNSA's cost and schedule estimates for this new facility grew by as much as $1 billion and 6 years between 2015 and 2019. It also plans to use a new technology to process lithium that may not be ready when construction begins—which could lead to delays.

We recommended management tools that can help NNSA maintain its lithium supply using deteriorated facilities until the new facility is ready in the 2030s.

In 2014, a 300-pound slab of concrete fell from the ceiling of a building used to process lithium in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Debris from a partial ceiling collapse in a building for processing lithium

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In December 2019, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) preliminarily estimated construction would cost between $955 million and $1.645 billion for a new lithium processing facility (LPF) at the Y-12 National Security Complex (Y-12) in Tennessee and would be completed between May 2028 and September 2031. This is a substantial increase in cost and schedule; in 2015, NNSA initially estimated that a new facility would cost between $300 and $631 million and could be completed between 2023 and 2025. One reason for the cost and schedule changes is increased facility size, as reflected in a more mature design. GAO's evaluation of the LPF's preliminary cost estimate found it to be substantially comprehensive. NNSA also plans to include a new technology in the facility design based on its most recent technology assessment. In this assessment, NNSA did not collect certain data needed to fully evaluate the lithium produced with the technology. GAO best practices recommend agencies ensure all necessary evidence is collected when assessing the maturity of a new technology. Otherwise, NNSA faces some risks to ensuring the technology is ready to start construction in 2024 and could face future delays to the LPF if testing reveals unexpected problems with lithium produced with this technology.

Preliminary Cost and Schedule Estimates for NNSA's New Lithium Processing Facility Increased Over Timea

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aNNSA's estimates are reported as actual dollars and were not adjusted for inflation.

Important program management tools that NNSA could use to help ensure that the agency meets lithium demand are under development and are not consistent with best practices. For example, the lithium program's current schedule and scope of work—as expressed in a work breakdown structure—do not track the same program activities. According to GAO best practices, a program's schedule should be aligned with its work breakdown structure to ensure that activities are completed on time. By aligning these management tools, NNSA could help ensure that the comprehensive scope of work for the program is reflected in the schedule and that NNSA is accomplishing all program activities on time.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since the 1940s, the nation's supply of lithium used in some nuclear weapons components has been processed at NNSA's Y-12 site. However, due to deteriorating facilities and equipment and the need to reestablish dormant processing capabilities, NNSA faces risks in meeting future lithium demand. To address these challenges, NNSA has developed a strategy to meet lithium demand until the 2030s, by which time it expects the new LPF will be fully operational.

The Senate committee report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 includes a provision for GAO to examine NNSA's lithium programs and projects. GAO's report examines, among other things, (1) the status of current cost and schedule estimates and design activities for NNSA's LPF project and (2) the extent to which NNSA has developed management tools for the lithium program that are consistent with best practices.

GAO reviewed NNSA and contractor documentation, compared NNSA's efforts against agency requirements and best practices, and interviewed NNSA officials and Y-12 contractor representatives.

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Recommendations

GAO is making seven recommendations, including that NNSA should ensure important data are collected for future technology assessments and align the program schedule with the scope of work. NNSA agreed with five and agreed in principle with two recommendations, noting actions taken. GAO believes NNSA needs to take additional actions, as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Nuclear Security Administration The Lithium Modernization Program Manager and the Federal Project Director for the LPF project should ensure that a TRA plan is documented, including a comprehensive assessment that ensures all key information is obtained by the TRA team to conduct future TRA assessments. (Recommendation 1)
Open
In their response to our recommendation, NNSA stated they agree with the recommendation and plan to include a documented TRA plan in the next update to the important technology planning documents in 2021.
National Nuclear Security Administration The Lithium Modernization Program Manager and the Federal Project Director for the LPF project should take steps to ensure that all key data are collected and assessed before completing future TRA assessments and achieving key project milestones. (Recommendation 2)
Open
In their response to our recommendation, NNSA stated they agree with the recommendation and plans to continue to collect key data as the technology is matured to Technology Readiness Level 7
National Nuclear Security Administration The Lithium Modernization Program Manager and the Federal Project Director for the LPF project should complete and document management reviews of the TRA process following the completion of future TRAs. (Recommendation 3)
Open
In their response to our recommendation, NNSA stated they agree with the recommendation and plan to document management reviews of the TRA process going forward.
National Nuclear Security Administration The Lithium Modernization Program Manager should ensure that the lithium modernization work breakdown structure captures the complete scope of work of lithium activities and should update the work breakdown structure in the event of future changes in scope. (Recommendation 4)
Open
In their response to our recommendation, NNSA stated their work breakdown structure includes the scope of work that is funded by the Lithium program. We disagree that the lithium work breakdown structure captures the complete scope of work for the Lithium Modernization Program. We will continue to monitor NNSA's work breakdown structure and determine whether NNSA has taken steps to implement this recommendation.
National Nuclear Security Administration The Associate Administrator for Defense Programs should update its Defense Programs Program Execution Instruction to include the requirement that programs' work breakdown structures use the NNSA-wide common work breakdown structure. (Recommendation 5)
Open
In their response to our recommendation, NNSA stated they agree with the recommendation and plan to update its guidance to include the requirement. We will update the status of this recommendation upon review of the updated guidance document.
National Nuclear Security Administration The Lithium Modernization Program Manager should align the program's integrated master schedule and work breakdown structure and do so continuously, following best practices for managing and integrating program scope, schedule, and cost. (Recommendation 6)
Open
In their response to our recommendation, NNSA stated they plan to continue to update their integrated master schedule, but it is unclear whether future updates will align the schedule to a complete lithium work breakdown structure. We will continue to monitor NNSA's work breakdown structure and integrated master schedule for the program and determine whether NNSA has taken steps to implement this recommendation.
National Nuclear Security Administration The Lithium Modernization Program Manager should develop a life-cycle cost estimate that aligns with the work breakdown structure and integrated master schedule, following best practices for managing and integrating program scope, schedule, and cost. (Recommendation 7)
Open
In their response to our recommendation, NNSA stated they plan to develop a life-cycle cost estimate after the lithium processing facility project reaches its next critical project milestone, an event not anticipated to occur until May 2026. We continue to believe that NNSA should take steps to develop a life-cycle cost estimate in advance of that project milestone using current estimates for the project.

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