The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) maintains the nuclear stockpile. To analyze the performance, safety, and reliability of nuclear weapons, it acquires high-performance computing (HPC) systems for simulations. The latest system, El Capitan, is expected to be complete in 2024.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that NNSA’s analysis of alternatives (AOA) process for its $600 million El Capitan HPC acquisition did not fully follow agency policy that states that AOA processes should be consistent with GAO best practices, where possible, and any deviations must be justified and documented. According to GAO best practices, a reliable AOA process should meet four characteristics: it should be comprehensive, well documented, unbiased, and credible. GAO found that the AOA process for El Capitan partially met one of these characteristics and minimally met the other three. NNSA did not justify or document the deviations from these best practices, as required by NNSA policy. GAO also found that the AOA process was conducted by the contractor that manages the El Capitan acquisition program, contrary to agency policy and guidance stating that AOAs should be conducted by an independent entity.
GAO found that, in the second year of the El Capitan acquisition program’s five-year acquisition life cycle, NNSA has fully implemented selected key practices related to program monitoring and control. However, NNSA has only partially implemented key practices related to requirements management. Specifically, El Capitan program officials did not update and maintain acquisition program documents to include current requirements. NNSA officials stated that once the program developed its program plan early in the program’s life cycle, they did not require the program to update and maintain that program plan. However, NNSA’s own program management policy requires programs to update program documents throughout the duration of the program. Without updating and maintaining El Capitan program documents to include current requirements, GAO says NNSA officials may be limited in their ability to ensure that all mission requirements are met.
The watchdog has therefore recommended that NNSA ensures that future HPC acquisition programs follow AOA best practices, where possible, and justify and document any deviations consistent with policy. In addition, GAO recommends that NNSA ensures that an independent entity conducts future AOA processes, and calls for acquisition program documents to include El Capitan requirements for the ongoing acquisition. NNSA generally concurred with these recommendations.