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National Nuclear Security Administration: Better Performance Tracking and Documentation Needed for Minor Construction Projects

GAO-24-105848 Published: Jan 25, 2024. Publicly Released: Jan 25, 2024.
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Fast Facts

This Q&A report reviews the National Nuclear Security Administration's management of its minor construction projects, such as upgrades to its facilities. Currently NNSA doesn't need specific congressional approval for these projects if they cost less than $30 million. We discuss the potential impacts of raising this cost threshold on NNSA's projects and Congress's oversight of them.

Also, NNSA hasn't formally documented how the projects should be managed, and it doesn't collect consistent cost or schedule data for them. This makes it hard to assess project performance or prevent cost overruns. Our recommendations address these issues.

Location of NNSA’s Minor Construction Projects, FYs 2019-2023

Map of the contiguous U.S. showing the locations of NNSA laboratories and other complexes.

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Highlights

What GAO Found 

The threshold for minor construction projects limits what the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) can spend on these projects without having to identify them as specific line items in its budget for congressional authorization and appropriation. Congress first set this threshold at $5 million in fiscal year 2003 and has raised it numerous times, most recently to $30 million in fiscal year 2023. The threshold is now more than double what it would have been had Congress tied it to inflation or a construction-specific economic indicator in fiscal year 2003. Specifically, the threshold would have been between $8 million and $12 million in fiscal year 2022.

Further raising the minor construction threshold could enable NNSA to more quickly address emerging issues without having to seek specific congressional authorization and appropriations for these projects, according to NNSA officials. However, a higher threshold could also limit congressional and departmental insight into the performance of some minor construction projects.

From fiscal year 2019 through July 2023, NNSA offices undertook 414 minor construction projects that cost an estimated total of about $3 billion. However, GAO could not assess the performance for some of these projects—that is, the extent to which they adhered to their baseline cost estimates and schedules—because the NNSA program offices responsible for the projects did not collect quality information in a consistent manner. NNSA also has not documented, in a formal and comprehensive manner, their processes and related requirements for managing minor construction projects.

Consistently collecting and tracking information on minor construction projects and documenting the processes and related requirements for managing these projects will enable NNSA to better manage and assess projects' performance—including schedule and cost. This is important because cost overruns on minor construction projects have been significant, and NNSA plans to initiate up to 437 minor construction projects over the next 5 fiscal years totaling about $5 billion.

Why GAO Did This Study

NNSA, a separately organized agency within the Department of Energy (DOE), carries out numerous minor construction projects each year at its eight nuclear security enterprise sites, which include national laboratories. These projects include additions, new or replacement facilities, and installations or upgrades that do not change a facility's footprint.

The minor construction threshold limits how much NNSA can spend on these projects before certain budgetary requirements kick in. A 2022 NNSA report recommended that NNSA request Congressional approval raise the minor construction threshold to $50 million or $100 million.

Senate Report 117-39, accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2022, included a provision for GAO to review the minor construction threshold and evaluate the potential effects of raising it. This report provides information on how NNSA manages minor construction projects, the number of these projects NNSA has undertaken and planned, and GAO's analysis of the potential effects of raising the threshold.

GAO analyzed data for NNSA's recent and planned minor construction projects and certain other projects, reviewed relevant DOE and NNSA directives and policies, and interviewed knowledgeable officials from selected DOE and NNSA offices. GAO assessed NNSA's data and policies against federal standards for internal control.

Recommendations

GAO is making two recommendations to NNSA to (1) collect and track quality information on minor construction projects in a consistent manner, and (2) comprehensively document its processes and related requirements for managing minor construction projects.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
National Nuclear Security Administration The NNSA Administrator should collect and track, in a consistent manner, quality information on cost and schedule performance for minor construction projects. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
National Nuclear Security Administration The NNSA Administrator should document, in a formal and comprehensive manner, NNSA's processes and related requirements for managing minor construction projects. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

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Topics

Budget justificationConstructionCost and scheduleCost and schedule performanceCost estimatesCost overrunsDefense budgetsDefense programsNuclear securityPrice inflationProgram managementProject management