In parts one and two of The Infrastructure Interviews, Bob Raines, Associate Administrator for Acquisition and Project Management, and Jim McConnell, Associate Administrator for Safety, Infrastructure and Operations, explained the historic infrastructure challenges of NNSA, the importance of its current and future missions, and the major and minor projects across the Enterprise that will bring NNSA into the 21st century.
In the final interview with Raines and McConnell, we discuss the unique infrastructure challenges being faced by the NNSA.
It is the sole responsibility of NNSA to determine what facilities are required to perform each part of the mission and then garner congressional support through the appropriations process.
Question: Is NNSA’s infrastructure unique within the Federal government?
Raines: Absolutely. NNSA infrastructure investments are unique in the Federal government as NNSA’s facilities themselves in large part make up the industrial base needed to meet the agency’s missions.
For example, when the Department of Defense seeks to buy a ship, submarine, aircraft, or tank, the private sector makes the investments necessary to ensure they have the industrial capacity and facilities to produce these platforms. These companies are the ones making the necessary capital investment decisions which are subsequently recovered in the cost of the platform.
However, there is no commercial industrial base to make nuclear weapons, process plutonium, design/disassemble/assemble nuclear warheads, or perform the necessary scientific research to maintain our strategic deterrent. Instead, it is the sole responsibility of NNSA to determine what facilities are required to perform each part of the mission and then garner congressional support through the appropriations process.
Question: What are some of the biggest challenges NNSA is currently facing in terms of infrastructure?
McConnell: One of the challenges NNSA faces with investing in mission-enabling infrastructure is in ensuring proper risk-prioritization with its missions and commitment to its workforce. Infrastructure risks are generally considered to be high consequence, low probability events, making mission-enabling infrastructure investments a natural offset for short-term requirements.
However, NNSA’s mission-enabling infrastructure – such as office space, parking lots, cafeterias, general laboratory space, warehouse space, and utilities – is vital to achieving its missions and forms the backbone of the Nuclear Security Enterprise (NSE), on which the agency’s critical missions rely upon.
NNSA will need approximately 5 million square feet of modern office and laboratory space over the next 10 years and approximately 10 million square feet over the next 20 years to address increasing staffing levels and replace aged facilities.
Mission-enabling infrastructure modernization also plays an important role in recruiting and retaining a world-class workforce – something NNSA has worked hard to address given the looming retirement of much of its workforce in the coming decades. Reliable and flexible mission-enabling infrastructure is also necessary for optimizing workflow and meeting evolving mission needs.
A current example of carrying out mission-enabling infrastructure projects is the agency’s plutonium pit production mission at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico – to meet mission requirements, the workforce associated with the pit production mission will increase by about 2,000 people between now and 2025. There is currently insufficient office space and parking to accommodate this increase.
Overall, NNSA will need approximately 5 million square feet of modern office and laboratory space over the next 10 years and approximately 10 million square feet over the next 20 years to address increasing staffing levels and replace aged facilities.
The challenge is that this will take time and money.
To overcome this challenge, the NNSA is focused on creating innovative ways to streamline processes, accelerate delivery, and increase our buying power. A few examples of this include:
· The Standardized Acquisition and Recapitalization (STAR) Initiative (STAR) created by NNSA in May 2019 to reduce costs and accelerate construction of small office and light laboratory facilities by developing common standards and common scalable designs that can be used across sites;
· The Enhanced Minor Construction and Commercial Practices (EMC2 ) pilots to streamline federal acquisition and oversight approaches for four low-risk construction projects for fire stations and emergency operations centers – each under $50 million; and
· Streamlined Project Execution and Acquisition Recapitalization (SPEAR) strategic initiative, established in 2019 to develop strategies and promote initiatives; a vehicle to collectively ensure integration, collaboration among working groups and action teams across sites to improve small project execution.
You can learn more about some of our innovative pilots and initiatives in our two-part web article series, “Challenging the status quo part one and part two : Innovation and the future of NNSA’s infrastructure modernization.”
Raines: APM is currently facing three primary challenges: craft staffing, supply chains, and COVID-19.
Because construction has been booming for the last decade, some regions in the United States have seen shortages of certain trades. Projects like UPF, discussed in Infrastructure Interviews: Part 2 , must compete with other projects in the region, sometimes emptying union halls entirely during peak construction activities. Of course, being able to supply work to our local site communities is a great thing, but has required that union halls fill craft requisitions from the broader region. The competition requires projects like UPF to provide craft incentives to draw interest in our jobsite. To date, the NNSA has been successful at drawing these trades when needed, but the craft trade is certainly a challenge the agency continues to work through solutions. Some of our sites, like the Nevada National Security Site and LANL, must draw craft labor into the area every time a large construction project occurs.
Another challenge affecting APM from different angles is that of supply chains. Specific to our needs, with a limited number of nuclear construction projects recently occurring in the United States, there are a limited number qualified vendors available to support the nuclear construction industry. We work hard to train and prepare the industry for our demands, but the challenge remains in the execution and delivery of these critical components. More broadly, across the U.S. economy there is a high demand for construction materials and the overall industry continues to face challenges from years of growth, which results in overwhelming the vendor base. This in turn poses a challenge when vendors are unable to meet the delivery schedules of construction commodities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has offered an additional unexpected challenge. Although not unique to NNSA, our work is mission essential, meaning that our contractors, subcontractors, vendors, and our own personnel have had to persevere and keep projects going and on schedule, while ensuring everyone’s safety. NNSA and its contractors have worked diligently to implement enhanced measures that have allowed these projects to continue so NNSA can deliver on its mission. While COVID-19 continues to be a challenge for America and NNSA, contractors have taken the necessary measures to ensure that construction work across the NSE continues.
Through its infrastructure efforts in support of its many other activities, NNSA remains committed to applying nuclear science to enhance our national security. Learn more about the Office of Acquisition and Project Management and the Office of Safety, Infrastructure, and Operations .