The same day the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) requested proposals for a potentially decades-long contract to run two of its three major nuclear weapons production sites, Senate appropriators asked why there is so little competition for such contracts at the Department of Energy.

The semiautonomous DoE nuclear weapons agency released the final solicitation Tuesday, the same day the Senate Appropriations Committee released a 2021 appropriations package that would give the NNSA the roughly $20 billion it requested. 

A detailed report appended to the Committee’s spending bill includes language directing the Government Accountability Office to examine why the DoE and the NNSA attract nearly the same pool of competitors every time the agencies have a major contract to compete. House and Senate appropriators have until Dec. 11 to compromise on a permanent 2021 federal budget. If they do not, they’ll again have to extend the 2020 budget to prevent a government shutdown.

Bids for the joint contract to manage the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and the Pantex Plant in Amarillo, Texas, are due Jan. 4, the NNSA wrote on a federal procurement website. The contract will be worth some $28 billion over 10 years, with options, including five years of firm money and five one-year options. The Bechtel-led Consolidated National Security will turn the reins over after Sept. 30, 2021. The NNSA plans to begin transitioning to the new contractor in June, making for about six months of internal deliberation, once bids are in. 

There are at least four teams considering bids, sources have told sister publication Weapons Complex Morning Briefing. All are teams of well-versed DoE and NNSA contractors with years of experience on defense-nuclear sites. 

As the usual suspects circle the NNSA’s latest big-money opportunity, Senate appropriators want to know why DoE and NNSA are always awarding their major contracts to that tight knit group of familiar faces, and whether the agencies could somehow lower the barrier of entry to the defense-nuclear business.

“Although this is not prohibited, the Committee is concerned about whether the Department and NNSA are maximizing competition with these awards,” the Senate Appropriations Committee wrote in a bill report accompanying their 2021 energy and water appropriations act. 

To that end, the Senate bill report would require the Government Accountability Office to study: how many companies have bid for DoE and NNSA contracts “in recent years;” whether the agencies have found and addressed any “systemic impediments that affect whether companies will do business with DoE and NNSA;” and whether the federal tools for tracking companies’ performance on government contracts provide any transparency into the sort of “single purpose limited liability company” that teams of heavy-hitting engineering, construction and environmental firms often create to bid for DoE business.