December 7, 2021

Allegations of Quality Assurance Irregularities in the National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade Recovery Project

The Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, located in Plainsboro, New Jersey, is a collaborative national center for fusion energy science, basic sciences, and advanced technology.  Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory constructed an innovative magnetic fusion device called the National Spherical Torus Experiment to explore results that may develop fusion energy as an abundant, safe, affordable, and environmentally-attractive means of generating electricity.  In February 2021, the Office of Inspector General received two complaints of noncompliance with quality assurance procedures that, if true, could cause catastrophic failure of the National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade Recovery project according to the complainant.  We initiated this inspection to determine the facts and circumstances regarding allegations of quality assurance irregularities in the National Spherical Torus Experiment Upgrade Recovery project.  We substantiated the allegations that quality control hold points were bypassed and that nonconformance reports were not always submitted; however, we were unable to determine if the actions were intended to hide fabrication and welding errors.  We also substantiated the allegations that the material traceability was not maintained for items used to fabricate critical parts and that welding was being conducted without in-progress inspections.  In addition, we found that Travelers, a folder that contains key items, and nonconformance reports were not always completed in accordance with Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory’s procedures.  We did not substantiate the allegation that the Department was not made aware of extensive damage that had occurred to the center stack casing being fabricated at a subcontractor facility.  The issues we identified occurred, in part, because of the complexity of the Travelers, a lack of Travelers training, and personnel not following procedures.  Management agreed with our findings and recommendations, and its proposed corrective actions are consistent with our recommendations.