The Department of Energy Office of the Inspector General recently released an audit examining infrastructure management at the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, where nuclear weapons are assembled, disassembled, and tested. The audit found that the contractor in charge of Pantex was underreporting maintenance problems which, in turn, had larger implications for the general safety and security of the nuclear weapons site.
The system used to keep track of maintenance activity contained 4,002 backlogged tasks, but the contractor, Consolidated Nuclear Security (CNS), neglected to report an additional 8,714 maintenance tasks that required attention, nearly 70 percent of its backlog. The DOE IG found that 169 of the unreported tasks were priority level 2, meaning they may reasonably be expected to cause harm if individuals are in normal working mode.
Requests to install lockable gates on a mission-critical facility, for example, were not included in the backlog, posing a threat to safety. Without the gates, personnel may not be sufficiently deterred from gaining roof access during radiography work. According to a senior manager at CNS, the only preventative measures in place were a physical barrier blocking one ladder to the roof and a warning sign on another. Important maintenance tasks like this went unreported because Pantex management did not file reports according to DOE standards. Maintenance tasks with a status other than “Ready” or “Working”—those placed on hold or those for which repair had not yet been planned, for example—went unreported, as did incomplete tasks that consumed more repair time than predicted.
It should be noted, however, that though CNS failed to include thousands of maintenance activities in the backlog, the DOE IG credited Pantex for accurately disclosing the overall condition of property assets and for reporting aging equipment. In the management response section of the report, the NNSA stated that following the DOE IG audit, corrective action has been pursued to align the reporting of the maintenance backlog with the Department guide, and that amendments have been made to its oversight system.
The DOE IG ultimately concluded that the maintenance backlog is an important indicator of the overall condition of Pantex infrastructure, without which the ability of the NNSA to appropriately allocate funds is diminished. Additionally, the report explained that if the maintenance backlog information is incomplete, it could “potentially result in unmonitored degradation of Pantex’s facilities and infrastructure and increases the risk of degrading Pantex’s ability to accomplish its mission in a safe, secure, and compliant manner.” The DOE IG report went on to reiterate the importance of strong federal oversight of the Pantex contractor.
The NNSA has proved time and time again that mistakes happen when federal oversight isn’t robust enough. Just this year the 2015 NNSA contractor evaluation report revealed that CNS allowed an incorrect tail case to be installed on an assembled B61-12 nuclear “smart bomb” at Pantex. The bomb was thankfully not nuclear armed, but the incident raised serious concerns nonetheless.
CNS has managed Pantex and the Y-12 National Security Complex since winning the contract in a contentious 2013 bid. CNS, a joint venture of several large defense contractors including Lockheed Martin and Betchel National, Inc., claimed it could save the United States $3 billion by trimming waste and consolidating management. But according to a GAO report on the bid, the NNSA failed to do the leg work to validate this ambitious claim before awarding the contract. As a result, the agency could be forced to deal with unexpected costs at the expense of taxpayers.
Although the corrective actions at Pantex are a positive step forward, it is vital that the NNSA maintain a sharp focus on effective oversight of CNS’s work at Pantex and the industry as a whole due to the extremely high stakes surrounding the nuclear weapons complex.