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Report: U.S. nuclear infrastructure projects over budget, decade behind schedule

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The federal agency responsible for the research and production infrastructure that supports America’s nuclear weapons stockpile plans to spend more than $34 billion on major projects in the coming years, but many are over budget and behind schedule, according to a report.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within the U.S. Department of Energy, maintains and enhances the safety, security and effectiveness of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. The agency’s 18 major projects collectively exceeded their cost estimates by more than $2 billion and surpassed their collective schedules by almost a decade as of March 2023, according to a report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The National Nuclear Security Administration is “reviewing cost and schedule estimates for four of these projects that had already experienced cost overruns or schedule delays and that could result in additional overruns or delays,” according to the Government Accountability Office report. For example, two of the four projects are part of the Uranium Processing Facility family of projects in Tennessee. They are a combined $2 billion over their cost baselines and 6.5 years behind their schedule baselines.

“These cost increases and schedule delays are due to multiple factors, such as poor management practices by the contractor, lower levels of worker productivity than planned, and impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., employee absenteeism due to illness),” according to the report.

The NNSA and the Department of Energy plan to complete reviews of both projects this summer.

“NNSA estimates that its portfolio of 18 major projects in the execution phase will overrun their collective cost and schedule baselines. Specifically, and as of March 2023, NNSA’s estimate of the total costs for all 18 projects was approximately $15.6 billion, which is $2.1 billion (or about 16%) higher than the collective cost baseline of approximately $13.5 billion,” according to the report. “In addition, NNSA’s estimate of the schedule for project execution for all 18 projects was 111 years, which is almost 10 years (or almost 9%) longer than the collective schedule baseline of 102 years.”

Among the agency’s major projects are three multibillion-dollar, one-of-a-kind projects to build new, or modify existing, uranium and plutonium component production facilities in New Mexico, South Carolina, and Tennessee. There’s also a $1.8 billion project for a linear accelerator that will be installed 1,000 feet underground in Nevada, along with multiple critical technologies to produce very detailed X-ray images during plutonium experiments. Another is a $270 million project to build a high explosives laboratory and related facilities in Texas, according to the report.

The Government Accountability Office made multiple recommendations to improve the agency’s management of major projects. The National Nuclear Security Administration agreed with a majority of those recommendations and implemented changes. However, the agency had not fully addressed seven of those recommendations as of July 2023, according to the report.

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