NIF again faces uncertain future

The U.S. Senate is expected to approve an appropriations bill that would delete $146 million for further construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The U.S. Senate is expected to approve an appropriations bill that would delete $146 million for further construction of the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL; Livermore, CA).

In February, President George W. Bush proposed a 12% cut in the NIF budget for FY2006 while also requesting $141 million for NIF construction. The House agreed to that figure but in mid-June the Senate Appropriations Committee eliminated it in a measure pushed through by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), chairman of both the Energy Committee and the Appropriations Committee. If approved by the Senate in a vote that is expected to come after the Fourth of July break, this measure would eliminate the project’s construction funding while still providing $314 million for continued research.

“I’m deeply disappointed by the actions of the Senate Energy and Water Appropriators, who zeroed out funding for construction of the National Ignition Facility at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory,” said Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-CA) in a published statement on June 15. “I am very concerned that after almost eight years and nearly $2.8 billion invested in construction of NIF, this action could undermine a critical component of our nation’s stockpile stewardship program which ensures safe maintenance of America’s nuclear arsenal without testing.”

This is not the first time NIF has come under fire in terms of budget and deadline concerns (see Laser Industry Report, Laser Focus World, March 2004), nor is it the first time that lawmakers have tried to reduce spending on the project. But many government officials have held steady on their position that the project, which is now about 80% complete, is crucial to maintaining the reliability of hydrogen bombs. Earlier this year, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman stated that NIF is "an essential component of the Stockpile Stewardship Program and of a responsive nuclear infrastructure. Using advanced laser and computer technologies, the NIF will be capable of simulating the heat and pressures of a nuclear explosion, which will provide essential data in assessing the potential performance of nuclear weapons."

Similarly, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Ambassador Linton Brooks, administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, testified that "The National Ignition Facility will give us a capability to investigate phenomena that can only be investigated by going to the surface of the sun . . . or by setting off a nuclear weapon."

But according to news reports, Domenici has complained that ballooning costs on the project are a drain on other programs designed also to maintain the nation’s nuclear arsenal, such as Sandia and Los Alamos, both of which are located in his state (New Mexico).

“NIF construction must wait until additional resources can be found to balance the needs between support of the stockpile and the single-minded desire to build NIF,’’ he said in an Associated Press news story on June 17. He reportedly contends that even with just four beams (the current number of lasers in place), NIF would still be the world’s most powerful laser and still capable of performing “many useful experiments.”

The project is now scheduled for completion in 2009.

-Kathy Kincade

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