The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) failed to follow federal best practices for acquisitions prior to ordering its $600 million El Capitan high-performance computing system, a congressional watchdog said in a report this week.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) urged NNSA to do a more detailed analysis of alternatives in the future, and ensure vetting is done by an independent entity, according to the report published Thursday.
Here NNSA “had a predetermined solution,” acquiring the high-performance computer setup, before doing the analysis, according to GAO. The analysis process was done “by the contractor that manages the El Capitan acquisition program,” GAO said in the report.
In the case of El Capitan, much of the analysis was done by officials from Lawrence Livermore National Security, a joint venture headed by the University of California and Bechtel that manages the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. “Livermore is not independent because it is the contractor managing and executing the acquisition of the El Capitan system, and it manages and operates the site where El Capitan will be installed,” GAO said.
The El Capitan computer system is supposed to be fully booted up by NNSA by March 2024, according to GAO. The NNSA uses high-performance computing such as El Capitan to help it gauge the performance and reliability of weapons in the nation’s nuclear stockpile.
The NNSA’s advanced simulation and computing program is an essential element of its stockpile stewardship given that the United States has observed a moratorium on actual nuclear explosive testing.
The Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Sandia National Laboratories and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories acquire the advanced computer systems to support software used for running simulations. Since 1996, NNSA has bought 13 major high-performance computer systems. El Capitan’s peak operating speed is expected to be more than 10 times faster than the most recent system now in use at the agency, according to GAO.
The GAO report, compiled over a two-year period starting in March 2019, was presented to the chairs and ranking minority members of the appropriate subcommittees for both the House Appropriations Committee and the Senate Appropriations Committee.