How Chernobyl Jump-Started the Global Nuclear Safety Regime

Have you been catching up on all the Emmy-nominated shows before the big event next Sunday, September 22?

With the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” nominated for 19 Emmy awards this year, we took the opportunity to look back at some of our reports on the accident. Today’s WatchBlog explores the U.S. role in responding to Chernobyl and the accident’s effect on worldwide nuclear safety.

The local response to a global emergency

After the accident, the U.S. helped build a protective concrete shelter, or sarcophagus, to cover the destroyed reactor to prevent further contamination.

Chernobyl Shelter(Excepted from GAO/RCED-00-97. See Figure 2, p. 23)

This initial shelter was never intended to serve as a permanent fix for confining the long-lived, highly radioactive material and continued to deteriorate.

The Interim Spent Fuel Storage Facility at Chernobyl(Excepted from GAO-07-923. See Figure 5, p. 33)

Disagreements between stakeholders and technical uncertainties delayed the completion of a permanent shelter, as we reported in 2007, but the “New Shelter”—built in 2018 at 32,000 tons and $2.3 billion—is intended to stand for at least a century.

Design of the Proposed New Chernobyl Shelter(Excepted from GAO-07-923. See Figure 2, p. 3)

“A nuclear accident anywhere is a nuclear accident everywhere”

Chernobyl’s after-effects resulted in global efforts to improve nuclear safety worldwide (and the aforementioned saying). Questions arose about the safety of nuclear reactors and what could be done to prevent a similar disaster–especially since there were still similar reactors in use in several places around the world.

To help address risks, the U.S. and other countries and international organizations provided assistance—such as equipment and training for nuclear reactor operators and regulators—to improve the safety of these reactors and make sure people were prepared if something did go awry.

Fire-Fighting Suits Provided to Smolensk Nuclear Power Plant(Excepted from GAO/RCED-97-5. See Figure III.6, p. 43)

Analytical Simulator Used by Ukrainian Nuclear Regulators(Excepted from GAO/RCED-00-97. See Figure 9, p. 49)

There was also a feeling among some members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), an autonomous agency affiliated with the United Nations, that the agency should take a greater role in nuclear safety. To that end, IAEA convened a conference that led to the adoption of the Convention on Nuclear Safety—a treaty developed in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident to promote the safety of nuclear power reactors around the world. IAEA administers the Convention. In 2010, countries told us that the Convention had indeed contributed to global nuclear safety.

The world continues to learn

Nearly 25 years after Chernobyl, an accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan prompted another global reckoning among nuclear safety regulators, who thought about what more could be done to improve nuclear safety—such as requiring backup electric generators in case a site lost power, similar to the Fukushima plant, and planning for previously unimagined accident scenarios.

Unit 3 of the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant Following the March 11, 2011, Earthquake and Tsunami(Excepted from GAO-14-109. See Figure 1, p. 7)

Like Chernobyl, Fukushima brought home the importance of safety culture: even as emerging nuclear technologies become “inherently” safer, humans will always have a role in nuclear safety.


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Following the Federal Dollar… geographically

When you think of the federal government, Washington, D.C. likely comes to mind. But the truth is that federal agencies and programs actually operate throughout the nation—from disaster recovery efforts to naval shipyards and federal data centers.

What you might not know, is that we at GAO are also spread across the country. In today’s WatchBlog, we offer a glimpse into our field offices from coast to coast.

From sea to shining sea

It’s valuable to have staff covering the U.S. to gather firsthand information and insight into different regions for our engagements. Setting up shop in different cities also allows us to recruit talented people who might not want or be able to relocate to Washington, D.C.

While 71% of our over 3,000 employees are based in our D.C. headquarters, the rest work in our 11 field offices across the country. In addition, GAO staff in all of our locations have telework opportunities.

Analyst staff in field offices are aligned with our mission teams, and work with our headquarters and other field office staff on our engagements. Operations staff also work in our field offices to help support our mission.

Field offices vary in size—both in the number of staff and number of mission teams they house. For example, our Atlanta office has staff from 8 of our mission teams, while our Dayton office only has staff from our Contracting and National Security Acquisitions team.

GAO’s Atlanta (left) and Dayton (right) field offices

Staying connected

GAO is committed to inclusion and valuing all of our staff. Since our staff work with colleagues in other areas of the country every day, it’s important that everyone have means for staying connected and that remote staff feel in touch with the goings-on in our headquarters.

We rely heavily on technology—such as video conferencing and screen-sharing software—to bring teams together virtually. We also offer opportunities for field staff to visit headquarters for training and important events, such as Congressional briefings.

To foster a sense of community, field offices also have social committees that coordinate events, like knowledge-sharing brown bags, potlucks, and after-hours volunteer activities.

Seattle field office cookie exchange event and Los Angeles field office charity drive

Learn more about what we do here.


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GAO’s Summer Reading List

Tomorrow is Read a Book Day! Or, if you’re an American high schooler, happy Finish Your Summer Reading List day! Those classics that teachers assign during the hotter months may not qualify as awesome beach reading, but plenty of those novels will help you grow and think about the world, kids.

We at GAO read—a lot. And while our tastes usually run more toward non-fiction, there’s a special place in our hearts for a well-told tale. Today’s WatchBlog features a reading list of classic books that touch on issues GAO investigates – and you can decide whether truth is stranger than fiction.

Photo of Someone Reading a Book in a Library

So long, and thanks for all the acquisition best practices

Although Arthur Dent eventually found out the answer to the “Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we found that DOD still has some searching to do for the answer to the resource challenges it faces as it builds its Space Force and launches new space programs. Unfortunately, they don’t have Marvin the Paranoid Android to solve “all of the major mathematical, physical, chemical, biological, sociological, philosophical, etymological, meteorological and psychological problems of the Universe … three times over,” but we did recommend they adopt acquisition best practices.

Graphic Showing the Segments of Space Systems

Closing the book on dirty bombs

In Alas, Babylon, things got chaotic during a nuclear strike on the United States—people trapped, communications down, a run on the banks leading to currency collapse, and violent bandits. We won’t say that life follows art, but we reported that the consequences of dirty bombs made from stolen radioactive material could include socioeconomic impacts and deaths during evacuations. As a result, we recommended the Nuclear Regulatory Commission factor in these consequences when setting security measures to prevent theft of high-risk radioactive materials.

Graphic Showing Potential Consequences of a Radiological Dispersal Device or Dirty Bomb

A happier ending for children

Children affected by trauma is a common theme in literature. Think Oliver Twist, Anne of Green Gables, and A Little Princess. The children in these books experience serious upheavals and instability – Oliver loses his mother and is exploited by a criminal gang; Anne bounces from foster home to foster home; and Sara is forced into child labor. In their worlds, there were few systems and services in place to help them cope with their traumatic experiences. Fortunately, outside the realm of literature, such children can be supported through a variety of different state and federal assistance programs. We’ve found that states support children affected by trauma by using screening tools to identify symptoms of trauma in children and by training staff to recognize signs of trauma and connect children with needed services, among other strategies. However, we also found that states face challenges, such as high staff turnover and limited funding.

Stormy seas for Navy shipbuilding

In the classic novel Moby-Dick, sailor and narrator, Ishmael, tells a tale of seafaring adventures on board the whaling ship, Pequod. While our capstone report on Navy shipbuilding does not include an entire chapter classifying different types of whales, it does provide an overview of our body of work on the Navy’s efforts to build up its fleet. We found that the Navy has not met its goal for the number of ships it planned to build and the amount of money it planned to use for shipbuilding, among other things. We also discuss ways the Navy can avoid past difficulties as it sets sail on its biggest fleet size increase in over 30 years.

Photo of Littoral Combat Ship 8


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Artificial Intelligence: Still a Long Way from Judgment Day

The 1991 sci-fi film Terminator 2 predicted that artificial intelligence (AI) software known as Skynet would become self-aware on August 29, 1997, and rapidly take over the world.

Today, even as we celebrate avoiding such an extreme outcome for 22 years and counting, we’re continually scanning the field for new developments in the world of AI. Read on, and listen to our podcast with GAO’s Chief Scientist and Managing Director, Tim Persons, to learn more about our work in this area.

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The current state of AI

AI is far from developing into anything like Skynet. That would require AI technologies with broad reasoning abilities, sometimes called third-wave AI, which are highly unlikely in the foreseeable future.

Currently, the most advanced AI is still in its second wave, driven by what’s called machine learning—in which algorithms use massive datasets to infer rules about how something works with little to no human guidance. In comparison, the first wave implemented rules created entirely by humans.

Figure Showing the Three Waves of AI

AI uses in business and government

The overarching potential benefit of AI is to relieve people of routine tasks, which could help deliver better products and services at lower cost. So far, machine learning has figured out the rules to voice recognition, facial recognition, movie recommendation, medical scan analysis, and answering questions shouted into a smart speaker.

And our 2018 technology assessment on AI highlighted even greater implications for businesses and government in the near future. For example:

  • In financial services, AI-driven chatbots and call centers could meet customer needs faster. And AI software could monitor transactions for fraud in real time.
  • In cybersecurity, AI could help identify and fix vulnerabilities.
  • In transportation, automated cars and trucks could improve highway safety, reduce delivery costs, and increase our mobility.

Image Showing Automated Vehicles that Rely on AI Could be Deployed in a Variety of Applications

AI also has the potential to transform health care. In fact, we have a series of technology assessments underway in that sector, thanks to our expanded capacity to look toward future developments with the launch of our Science, Technology Assessment, and Analytics team earlier this year.

In addition, we recently reported on how insurance companies use AI and other technologies, and how those uses might be regulated, as well as how the Department of Labor could better track the effects of AI technologies on jobs.

Is AI too good to be true?

Even with the possible improvements that AI may bring, we’re keeping an eye on the associated risks, too. Such risks are often related to the large amount of data that machine learning generally requires.  One risk is that when data about people are collected and aggregated, they could be used in ways that might not benefit them. For example, data from medical records might be used to deny at-risk individuals insurance or employment.

Another risk is that biases in the data could lead to biased outcomes. For example, AI is under development to assist in criminal sentencing, and it’s possible the resulting recommendations might be harsher for certain racial groups. Any such bias may be difficult to detect, however, since most machine learning algorithms are “black box”–meaning users cannot understand the reasons behind their decisions or recommendations.

Much like the end of Terminator 2 (spoiler alert!) where the benevolent AI-driven robot played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, defeats the evil AI robot, we have a similar, if less dramatic vision: a future in which the nation takes advantage of this powerful technology while minimizing its risks.


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GAO Reports by the Numbers: International Affairs and Trade

thumbnail international affairsFrom diplomatic security to global health and customs issues, our International Affairs and Trade team reports on topics that affect the security and prosperity of the global community.

To get a better idea of the breadth of the issues we look at, here’s a roundup of facts from some recent reports. For more details on each fact, click on the answer to go to the original report.

What percentage of overseas Foreign Service positions were vacant as of March 2018? (13%)

How much has the Small Business Administration awarded through its State Trade Expansion Program to help small businesses export their goods or services? ($139 million)

According to the World Health Organization, tobacco use is responsible for how many deaths worldwide each year? (Over 8 million)

How much has the U.S. government invested in counternarcotics and security efforts in Colombia since 1999? (Over $10 billion)

How many embassies, consulates, and other diplomatic missions does the State Department operate worldwide? (More than 275) (This post was edited to reflect the number of missions.)

How much has the U.S. government invested since 2002 for Afghan security—including providing and maintaining equipment for the Afghan defense and security forces? (Over $84 billion)


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Back to School with GAO

Across the nation, teachers are gearing up for the new school year, with tests at the ready to determine how well kids know their numbers and facts.

Today, the WatchBlog is testing your knowledge of various topics affecting the nation’s public school children. Are you an A+ student? Read on to find out!

What percentage of U.S. public school districts inspected their schools for lead-based paint in 2016-2017?

a) 6%
b) 12%
c) 18%
d) 24%

Answer: (b) 12%

Nationwide, an estimated 12% of school districts inspected for lead-based paint in 2016-2017. In addition, about half of the school districts that inspected found lead-based paint, and all of them took action to reduce or eliminate it or had plans to do so. Learn more in our report.

What percentage of high-poverty public high schools offer the number of science courses colleges say they want incoming freshmen to have taken?

a) 100%
b) 90%
c) 59%
d) none of the above

Answer: (c) 59%

We found that 59% of high-poverty public high schools offered the recommended science courses (at least biology, chemistry, and physics) in school year 2015-16, while 83% offered the recommended math courses. We also found that the percentage of schools offering the recommended number of science and math courses decreased as school poverty level increased.

What percentage of public school districts with high percentages of American Indian and Alaska Native students offered students a choice among public schools?

a) 80%
b) 43%
c) 16%
d) 2%

Answer: (c) 16%

We found that, in school year 2015-16, 16% of public school districts with high percentages of American Indian and Alaska Native students offered at least one choice other than a traditional public school. We also reported that many districts with high percentages of these students were in rural areas, where there may not be enough students in general to support multiple public schools.

How much of a developmental delay must infants and toddlers have to be eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

a) At least 50%
b) At least 35%
c) At least 20%
d) It depends on the state

Answer: (d) It depends on the state

IDEA generally allows states to define what constitutes a developmental delay (when a child does not reach developmental milestones for certain skills, such as motor or language skills, at the expected times), including the level or severity of the delay. For example, in Maryland, a child must have at least a 25% delay in one or more developmental areas to be eligible for IDEA services, while in Arizona, the child must demonstrate a 50% delay in one or more developmental areas to be eligible. Check out our report for more information.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Jacqueline Nowicki at nowickij@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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Preventing and Addressing Abuse in Nursing Homes

Confirmed incidents of abuse in nursing homes more than doubled from 430 in 2013, to 875 in 2017. While the abuse of nursing home residents remains relatively infrequent, this increase is troubling, especially because the largest increase was in the most severe cases.

Today’s WatchBlog explores our recent report on nursing home abuse. You can also listen to our podcast with John Dicken, the director who led the report, to learn more.

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spacerFederal oversight

There are over 15,500 nursing homes in the country that participate in the Medicare and Medicaid programs. Collectively, they provide care to about 1.4 million elderly or disabled residents. These residents often have physical and cognitive limitations that can make them particularly vulnerable to abuse.

These nursing homes are regulated by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which enters into agreements with state survey agencies to oversee nursing home quality. These survey agencies investigate complaints regarding resident care and safety, among other types of oversight.

Reporting abuse

When a nursing home becomes aware of an incident, they are required to immediately report the allegation to the state survey agency. Reporting abuse allows survey agencies to respond to, investigate, and remedy the problem.

However, we found a number of issues with the abuse investigation and prevention process, including:

  • CMS doesn’t provide guidance on the type of information that nursing homes should provide when reporting potential abuse to survey agencies. This may contribute to incomplete information that makes it harder for these agencies to determine whether an investigation should occur and how soon.
  • Facilities are required to report potential crimes to law enforcement immediately. However, if a survey agency receives a complaint that may have criminal implications, it isn’t required to share that with law enforcement until the complaint has been substantiated. This could take weeks or months and potentially delay a law enforcement investigation.
  • CMS wasn’t able to readily access information on types of abuse and types of perpetrators in its data. Without this information, CMS may not be able to effectively tailor its prevention efforts.

Next steps

To improve CMS’s oversight of nursing homes, we recommended that it provide guidance for facilities on how to report incidents, require survey agencies to immediately report potential crimes to law enforcement, and improve the accessibility of data on abuse and perpetrator type.

To learn more, read our full report.


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GAO’s Professional Development Program – Watchdogs in Training

New entry-level staff at GAO spend their first 2 years in the Professional Development Program, which provides a wealth of on-the-job experience, classroom trainings, and career development opportunities.

In today’s WatchBlog, we take a glimpse at what it’s like for newcomers to earn their stripes.

On-the-job experience

GAO analysts spend most of their time working with a team to plan and conduct reviews of government programs or agency operations. Typical day-to-day work includes analyzing agency data, meeting with agency officials, briefing congressional staff, or helping to draft reports and testimonies.

Congressional hearing with a GAO director

While in the PDP, most analysts rotate through at least 3 of GAO’s mission teams to experience all phases of an evaluation and gain exposure to different policy areas, such as national security, health care, and the environment. However, some analysts with specialized expertise—such as accountants or IT professionals—are hired directly to one mission team and work on different projects within that team.

One PDP analyst told us, “During my first audit, I had the opportunity to brief our congressional requesters on the findings that resulted from our review of the U.S. Postal Service. It was a great feeling to be so engaged in the congressional process and influence policy based on the solid research standards of GAO.”

In addition to our analysts, staff from a variety of backgrounds—including business, IT, and accounting—work in roles that support our mission, such as procurement specialist, management analyst, and security specialist. New hires in these positions are assigned to one of our operational units. While in the PDP, staff receive a range of targeted job experiences and mentorship opportunities that help develop their skills and complete 3 developmental projects based on their interests and specific unit needs.

Training

All PDP employees also receive extensive classroom training to enhance their knowledge and skills in areas applicable to performing GAO work. Classes cover a range of topics such as project management, data collection, and writing.

GAO orientation courseGAO orientation coursePDP employees told us, “The amount of training I received as a new employee made me feel that GAO was truly invested in helping me succeed,” and, “Recently, the agency has begun developing more classes that serve its operations staff. Because of what I learned in these courses, I feel more prepared to handle different types of tasks.”

Career development

The PDP also has several other initiatives such as a newsletter, information sharing committee, and social committee. These initiatives provide staff with a sense of community as they learn about the agency, as well as additional opportunities to collaborate across GAO.

PDP event with the GAO Executive Committee

For example, one PDP employee said: “I helped to coordinate a PDP panel discussion on recommendations, which is how GAO measures its performance. Not only did it expose new staff to an important aspect of GAO’s work, but it also allowed me to interact with senior executives that I wouldn’t otherwise have met on my day-to-day job.”

Perks of being at one of the best places to work in the federal government

PDP staff also have a chance to take advantage of a few of the perks that have made GAO one of the best places to work. Some of these perks include creating a flexible schedule, taking advantage of the student loan repayment program, and getting to network with international auditors in GAO’s International Fellows Program. GAO headquarters also has a child care center that staff can enroll their children in and an onsite fitness center staff can join, among other amenities.

GAO headquarters’ onsite fitness center and child care centerOne PDP analyst told us “I love working for an organization that strives to make its employees happy. I’ve created a work schedule that allows me to start and end my schedule earlier, and I feel much more energized and productive because of it.”

Learn more about our work, benefits, and core values. And for those interested in joining our team, set an alert on USAJobs to hear about future openings!


• Questions on the content of this post? Contact pdpprogram@gao.gov.
• Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.

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Get ON the Internet and Do Your Homework!

A child types on a laptop in front of a bookcase filled with booksThese days, internet access is crucial for students both in and out of the classroom. “Underconnected” students—those with limited or no internet access at home—may have difficulty completing homework assignments. This puts them at risk of falling behind better-connected students.

With back to school season on the horizon, today’s WatchBlog looks at our report on how school districts are attempting to address this “homework gap,” and the role the federal government is playing in those efforts.

Income and internet access

Not having fast, reliable, in-home internet can make it tough for students to complete homework. We found that school-age children from lower-income households are more likely to rely on mobile wireless service for their internet connection than their peers in higher-income households. Have you ever tried typing a 300-word essay on a smartphone?

Underconnected students may seek out ways to access wireless internet away from home to do their homework, which can bring other challenges.

Challenges to Methods School-Aged Children (6–17) May Use to Access Wireless Internet outside the Home to Do Homework

Bridging the homework gap

Some school districts have addressed disparities in students’ in-home internet access by finding ways to expand wireless access off school grounds. For example:

  • The Green Bay Area Public School District in Wisconsin loans out mobile wireless hot-spot devices to students who do not have access at home.
  • The Boulder Valley School District in Colorado allowed a local wireless provider to build antennas on some school buildings in exchange for providing free service to lower-income students.
  • From 2014 to 2017, Coachella Valley Unified School District in California equipped its fleet of about 100 school buses with Wi-Fi, enabling students to do homework during long bus rides. District officials said they are seeking funding to restart the initiative.

The federal connection

None of the 6 school district projects we reviewed had used federal funds to help provide wireless internet access for students off school grounds, and we found that the federal role in these efforts was limited.

The Federal Communication Commission’s E-rate program provides discounts on telecommunications and internet access services to schools. But E-rate does not support off-premises internet access. School district officials told us this restriction may affect districts’ ability to expand wireless access off school grounds, and thus to address the homework gap.

We recommended that FCC take steps to assess and publish the potential benefits, costs, and challenges of making off-premises wireless internet access eligible for E-rate support.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Andrew Von Ah at vonaha@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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A Look at the Federal Government’s Aging Computer Systems

Image Showing Computer CodeImagine trying to read this post on a first- or second-generation mobile phone. It would be slow to load and the screen image wouldn’t be as crisp as the one you’re probably looking at right now.

There’d be a lot you couldn’t do with such a phone—and it would be quite an inconvenience.

Now, imagine trying to run a critical government program using an old computer system. In today’s WatchBlog, we look at what federal plans to modernize aging government computer systems.

A legacy best left behind

Aging—or “legacy”—systems pose problems for the federal government. They can be costly to maintain and vulnerable to hackers. They can make it difficult for agencies to reliably meet mission needs and agencies can have trouble finding staff who know how to use the systems’ old technology and code.

Figure Showing an Example of an 8-Inch Floppy Disk

We’ve reported before that such systems are becoming increasingly obsolete, as Dave Powner—who led that review—explained in our podcast. However, the systems can also be costly to replace.

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spacerspacerOut with the old

The U.S. government plans to spend over $90 billion this fiscal year on information technology and most of that will be used to operate and maintain existing systems, including legacy systems.

We analyzed 65 federal legacy systems and identified the 10 most critical systems—each at a different agency—that need to be modernized. These 10 systems were:

  • Vital to providing essential services like emergency management, health care, and defense,
  • Between 8 and 51 years old, and
  • Cost about $337 million collectively each year to operate and maintain.

Some of them also used outdated code, relied on hardware and software that is no longer supported by the manufacturers, or had major security risks.

Planning for the future

Seven of the 10 agencies had documented plans to modernize these critical systems but most of those plans did not have key practices for success. Three of the agencies didn’t have any documented plans.

However, for agencies that still need to upgrade legacy systems, there’s hope: Agencies identified at least 94 examples of legacy systems being successfully modernized in the last 5 years. Some of the agencies transformed legacy code into a more modern code and others migrated legacy services to the cloud.

Check out our report to learn more.


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