A Department of Energy policy emphasizing continuous improvement requires its subsidiary organizations to keep track of what has gone wrong, what’s being done to correct the problem, and whether the matter has been resolved.
A new audit report by the Department of Energy Inspector General found that LANL has not developed an adequate program for managing such issues and their related corrective actions. LANL relies on its Performance Feedback and Improvement System, but the audit found that a “large percentage of issues were not effectively addressed.”
Another angle on issues management, the Differing Professional Opinions process, was found to be particularly flawed. While Intended to record conflicting professional opinions concerning environment, safety and health, the requirement was conspicuously absent from environment, safety and health subcontracts.
“Our review disclosed significant weaknesses in LANL’s implementation of an effective issues management program,” the auditors summarized in their findings. “In our view, these problems adversely affected the usefulness of the corrective action program and the differing professional opinions process. We noted that the employee concerns program was generally effective; however, due to the complexity of some concerns, LANL did not always meet its internal goal for resolving concerns within 90 days.”
An example of the analysis can be found in a critique of the laboratory’s shortcomings in identifying and correcting recurring issues. For example, the review “identified more than 2,600 pressure safety issues” among records categorized as “low-significance.”
But, the auditors said they found “no evidence that pressure safety was evaluated as a systemic or recurring problem.” The problem is compounded by the related observation that LANL officials during a previous review had found that “one quarter of issues categorized at the lowest level should have been treated as higher significance.” Also, the report said, “A Field Office Official confirmed that pressure safety was a systemic problem and that the records in our sample were a small proportion of the total pressure safety issues that existed.”
“Overall, we found LANL’s corrective action program did not always adequately address issues, did not effectively prevent their recurrence and did not consistently identify systemic problems,” the report concludes.
LANL responded to the audit report with a prepared statement: “The Laboratory is working closely with NNSA to address the findings of the DOE-IG Audit Report. The Laboratory and NNSA are very serious about environment safety and health issues, and the Laboratory’s ability to deliver on mission requirements as safely as possible.”
The report said that the lab’s federal supervisors, the National Nuclear Security Administration, concurred with the inspector general’s findings and recommendations, and noted that the findings were consistent with NNSA’s prior findings and reflected in performance evaluation reports, which had flagged issue management as an area ripe for improvement. NNSA said those shortcomings had been taken into account with respect to contract fees and the question of term extension.
While the performance evaluation report for fiscal 2015 has yet to be made public, the previous report awarded only $6.25 million to Los Alamos National Security, the University of California-Bechtel led partnership that manages and operates the laboratory. The award amounted to slightly less than 10 percent of the available fee. Because of poor performance grades, LANL was denied a one-year extension of the contract and a previous year’s extension was revoked.
In December 2015, LANL Director Charles McMillan told employees that the fiscal 2015 performance evaluation would not qualify the lab for an additional term, although discussions about LANS continuing to manage for an extra period of time was said to be in the works.