Nuclear weapons program chief pledges better governance

National Nuclear Security Administration is reviewing policies and procedures at contractor-operated facilities.

After just one week on the job, Donald Cook, the new deputy administrator for defense programs at the Energy Department's quasi-independent National Nuclear Security Administration, said he believes agency operations can be improved and is embracing Energy Secretary Steven Chu's call for departmentwide governance reform.

"We're looking at policies, we're looking at procedures and at operations. And at the same time we're looking to hear views from the field on what it is that gets in the way of our desire to have operations that are clear, safe, secure, productive and meet the need," Cook said during a telephone briefing with reporters on Wednesday.

NNSA is responsible for the safety, security, reliability and performance of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile through government-owned, contractor-operated facilities at eight nuclear sites that support weapons activities.

"The intent of governance reform is to get the best out of the [management and operations] contractors and from across American industry that we can for the operation of the sites," Cook said. An engineer and scientist, Cook worked for 28 years at Sandia National Laboratories before becoming the executive director and chief executive officer at the Atomic Weapons Establishment in the United Kingdom, a government-owned, contractor-operated enterprise that supports the Ministry of Defense. He was confirmed by the Senate and assumed his new position at NNSA on June 30.

NNSA has long been troubled by management shortfalls at its nuclear weapons sites. Last month the Government Accountability Office took the agency to task for its inability to reliably estimate the costs of operations and maintenance at weapons facilities. The issue is critical as Congress weighs the Obama administration's request for an additional $4.25 billion in funding for NNSA's nuclear weapons program between 2011 and 2015.

According to GAO's report, NNSA's problems stem partly from the fact the weapons sites use different cost accounting practices.

"Total costs to operate and maintain weapons activities facilities and infrastructure likely significantly exceed the amount NNSA justified to Congress in the president's weapons activities budget request," GAO found. For example, in 2009 Congress directed about $559 million for the Readiness in Technical Base and Facilities program at six sites, but the estimated expenditure for the work scope drawn from all funding sources was actually $1.1 billion at the sites.

While NNSA is implementing procedures that will lead to better cost information, the agency has chronically underestimated the costs of major facilities projects, among them a new chemistry and metallurgy research replacement facility at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and a uranium processing facility in Oak Ridge, Tenn.

The facilities are 50 to 60 years old and need to be replaced, Cook said. A major problem is NNSA has provided cost estimates to Congress that were premature, and thus incomplete.

"The key issue here is to not quote a cost too early," Cook said. "Engineering practice says you quote a cost which is appropriate to the level of design information that you actually know that you know."

In Cook's view, reliable estimates cannot be provided until the engineering design is 90 percent complete. "In the past, there hasn't been a formal time -- rarely was it less than 60 percent and occasionally it was more than 70 percent. But at the 90 percent point is the time at which we can commit to a cost estimate, including a cost range," he said, which he believes will not occur before early 2012.

Cook said he understands members of Congress are uneasy with such uncertainty, but providing a cost estimate that will surely turn out to be incorrect will not help, he added.

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