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Nuclear agency back on federal ‘high-risk’ list

SANTA FE, N.M. — The National Nuclear Security Administration’s project management troubles, including the agency’s inability to bring a new Los Alamos plutonium laboratory in on a reasonable budget and schedule, have earned the agency a spot once again on the GAO’s “high risk” list.

The list, produced every two years by Congressional auditors at the Government Accountability Office, highlights government agencies “most in need of transformation” because of management and other problems. The Department of Energy, which includes NNSA, has made the list consistently since the early 1990s. In the latest edition, the GAO notes DOE has been making some progress in its project management, but NNSA, along with the agency’s environmental management work, remain trouble spots.

In January 2009, to recognize progress made at the Office of Science, GAO narrowed the focus of its high risk designation to two DOE program elements – the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Office of Environmental Management (EM).

Together, these two programs accounted for almost 65 percent of DOE’s fiscal year 2012 discretionary funding of more than $26 billion. This year, GAO is further narrowing the focus of its high risk designation to major contracts and projects, those with values of at least $750 million, to acknowledge progress made in managing smaller value efforts.

The report highlighted the agency’s Los Alamos difficulties: NNSA’s project to design and construct a new plutonium facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory had experienced a nearly six fold increase to between $3.7 billion and $5.8 billion before being deferred for at least 5 years.

Meg Kinnard with the Associated Press in South Carolina highlighted another trouble spot found by the GAO: The price tag for a South Carolina project intended to turn weapons grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors has gone up by $2 billion, according to a report released Thursday.

The assertion by the General Accountability Office means that the overall cost for the National Nuclear Security Administration project is now estimated at just under $7 billion, with still several more years to go before the facility is expected to open.