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Management of nuclear lab program draws mixed reviews

A program to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons facilities is poorly managed, the Energy Department inspector general's office reported recently. But in February, the Office of Management and Budget rated the same program positively in an assessment that ties performance to agency budgets.

According to a May report from Energy's inspector general, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) cannot prioritize maintenance projects and risks because it does not properly maintain current lists of nuclear facilities needing renovations. Unless NNSA collects reliable information on facilities, the agency cannot spend the $1.5 billion earmarked for repair projects over the next five years wisely, the inspector general warned.

In contrast, OMB evaluators using the Program Assessment Rating Tool rated NNSA's three-year-old program in February as "moderately effective." "Even though it is a young program, early indications are that NNSA manages it well," OMB assessors wrote. "The [Energy] Department has an adequate and detailed planning process that should enable it to achieve its goals of stabilizing, not increasing, the amount of deferred maintenance by 2005 and meeting the industry standard by 2009."

The NNSA program was one of 234 federal programs that OMB evaluated as part of the fiscal 2004 budget process. Only 30 percent of these programs earned "moderately effective" or "effective" ratings.

Ideally, discrepancies between reports by inspectors general and OMB assessments would not arise, said Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. PART guidelines encourage inspectors general and OMB assessors to communicate if both are reviewing the same program. The communications process should start early on during the review, DeMaio said.

Where discrepancies between PART and other program evaluations do arise, OMB examiners should take them into account during the next round of program evaluations, DeMaio said. If program managers have not started to fix problems pointed out by inspectors general, for example, OMB assessors should alter ratings accordingly.

In the case of NNSA's nuclear facility maintenance program, the Energy inspector general's report came out in May, several months after OMB published PART results. But the research behind the report overlapped the time frame for OMB evaluations.

Even the best communication cannot prevent the possibility of human error or fix time constraints that are inherently part of the PART process, said Chris Wye, director of the Center for Improving Government Performance at the National Academy of Public Administration.

"Human beings have to get through the day," Wye said. "They can't be evaluating things all day long."

Energy inspectors report based their assessment on tours of Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories and the Nevada Test Site, completed between March and December 2002. Upon visiting the three facilities, inspectors often found conditions inconsistent with those reported by NNSA and outlined in each site's 10-year strategic plan. For example, when inspectors visited a Nevada Test Site conference center NNSA listed in "fair" condition, they found the center vacant, with a caved-in ceiling. Managers at the site told the Energy IG that a warehouse classified as "adequate" by NNSA, was actually rat-infested and needed roof repairs.

Contributing to the problem, the facilities did not undergo thorough inspections often enough, the IG found. At Los Alamos, for example, the last comprehensive inspection took place in 1992. Current maintenance lists are based on that evaluation, even though factors, such as a wildfire in May 2000, have since changed conditions at the lab significantly.

The Energy inspector general recommended that NNSA require nuclear labs and test sites to conduct new facility assessments and use those assessments to update their 10-year strategic maintenance plans. Inspectors also suggested that NNSA issue guidelines to help labs prioritize repair projects.

In response to the inspector general report, NNSA officials said they have already taken some of the suggested steps to improve program management. The agency is updating requirements for facilities evaluations and altering the assessment process.

But NNSA officials emphasized that, contrary to the inspector general's report, they do not believe their current lack of accurate information on facility conditions has jeopardized the "vitality and readiness" of nuclear weapons programs.