The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) 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.
The Government Accountability Office has found that NNSA’s cost and schedule estimates for this new facility grew by as much as $1 billion and six 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.
In December 2019, 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. GAO determined that 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, the government watchdog say, 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.
GAO found that 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, GAO believes 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.
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.