Waste Isolation Pilot Plant: Construction Challenges Highlight the Need for DOE to Address Root Causes

GAO-22-105057 Published: Mar 15, 2022. Publicly Released: Mar 15, 2022.
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Fast Facts

 

The Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico is the nation's only facility for disposal of certain defense-related nuclear waste. Its operations were reduced after accidents in 2014. Improved ventilation would allow full operations but construction of a new ventilation system has run into major cost increases and delays.

DOE identified the primary root causes of these problems as contractor inexperience and staffing challenges. DOE has taken some corrective actions but doesn't have a plan for addressing root causes or a process for determining if they've been addressed. Our recommendations address these issues.

Construction of DOE’s New Ventilation System at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico

construction site with partially built walls, a crane, and scaffolding

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), near Carlsbad, New Mexico, is the nation's only facility for disposal of certain defense-related nuclear waste. The Department of Energy (DOE) identified two root causes for cost increases and schedule delays in its project to install a new ventilation system at WIPP (see figure). The facility is currently operating at a reduced capacity because of ventilation issues in the underground waste disposal areas. The root causes DOE identified were (1) its contractor's inexperience managing construction projects and (2) an inability to incentivize staff to work in Carlsbad. DOE also identified more specific problems with this ventilation project, and has taken corrective actions to address them. While some of these corrective actions may also help to address the root causes, the extent to which these actions will do so is unclear because DOE is not required to develop a corrective action plan for addressing the root causes and does not have a process to determine whether root causes have been sufficiently addressed. Without such a plan and process, DOE cannot ensure that root causes it identifies for cost increases and schedule delays in the WIPP ventilation project or other projects will not persist or recur.

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Ventilation System Project at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico

The Department of Energy's (DOE) Ventilation System Project at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico

DOE's construction project to improve the ventilation system is part of its plans to ensure that WIPP can meet DOE's anticipated needs for waste disposal. However, the department faces construction and regulatory risks that might delay its plans. For example, DOE may not be able to finish construction and start operating the ventilation system on time. In addition, DOE may not receive needed approvals from the state regulator and the Environmental Protection Agency if, for example, the department does not provide requested information on time. Department officials told GAO that DOE has not updated recently its WIPP risk register, which helps track risks and plan mitigation measures. Department guidance states that it should periodically evaluate and include emerging risks and mitigation strategies in the risk register because this information is used to update the schedule. Without these updates, DOE may not have an achievable WIPP schedule, which could in turn create shipping delays and cost increases for the sites that are generating the waste.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOE suspended operations at WIPP after two accidents in 2014 and resumed on a limited scale in 2017. In response to the accidents, DOE has a construction project to improve WIPP's underground ventilation and allow full disposal operations to resume. However, DOE has encountered cost increases and schedule delays with the ventilation project.

The conference report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021 included a provision for GAO to report on the operational status and a construction project at WIPP. This report examines (1) the extent to which DOE identified and addressed root causes for the ventilation system project's cost increases and schedule delays, and (2) DOE's plans to ensure WIPP can meet anticipated disposal needs, and what risks DOE may face.

GAO reviewed documents related to root causes and changes in project cost and schedule estimates, and interviewed DOE and contractor officials.

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Recommendations

GAO is making four recommendations, including that DOE require a corrective action plan and a process to determine whether root causes have been sufficiently addressed, as well as update the WIPP risk register. DOE agreed with all four recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should ensure that the Director of the Office of Project Management assess the extent to which all corrective actions taken in response to various SSCVS project reviews have addressed the root causes and significant contributing factors identified in the root cause analysis and determine whether there is reasonable assurance that the root causes will not persist. (Recommendation 1)
Open
According to DOE's comments on the report, DOE plans to conduct an independent assessment of the effectiveness of all corrective actions taken in response to previous SSCVS project reviews and the root cause analysis. DOE anticipates this assessment will be complete in fall 2022.
Department of Energy
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Energy should ensure that the Director of the Office of Project Management update Order 413.3B to require that program offices develop corrective action plans that will address root causes. (Recommendation 2)
Open
According to DOE's comments on the report, DOE plans to develop a project management policy statement requiring formal corrective action plans after a root cause analysis for capital asset projects. DOE anticipates this project management policy statement will be complete by September 2022. In addition, the policy should be incorporated into the next update of DOE Order 413.3B.
Department of Energy
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Energy should ensure that the Director of the Office of Project Management update Order 413.3B to require that the Office of Project Management assess and validate the extent to which the program office has taken corrective actions to address root causes identified during the baseline change process. (Recommendation 3)
Open
According to DOE's comments on the report, DOE plans to develop a project management policy statement requiring the Office of Project Management to independently assess the effectiveness of all corrective actions taken in response to root cause analyses for capital asset projects. DOE anticipates this project management policy statement will be complete September 2022. In addition, the policy should be incorporated into the next update of DOE Order 413.3B.
Department of Energy The Secretary of Energy should ensure that the Assistant Secretary for Environmental Management update the risk register for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant to include specific regulatory, construction, and other risks, together with adequate mitigation strategies. (Recommendation 4)
Open
According to DOE's comments on the report, DOE plans to update the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant Risk Register to include specific regulatory, construction, and other risks and adequate mitigation strategies. DOE anticipates the risk register will be updated by early 2023.

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