National Ignition Facility still under the microscope

Dec. 1, 2000
Officials at the Department of Energy (DOE) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA) must have heaved a sigh of relief when, despite bad publicity and congressional complaints about management problems and cost overruns for the project.

Officials at the Department of Energy (DOE) and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA) must have heaved a sigh of relief when, despite bad publicity and congressional complaints about management problems and cost overruns for the project, and in the midst of an unusually acrimonious political debate about federal appropriations as the presidential election neared, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) received almost all the money that President Clinton requested for it in FY2001, which began October 1. Specifically, Congress appropriated $199 million for NIF—only about $10 million less than was requested.

NIF, being built at the Livermore laboratory, is to consist of an array of 192 lasers to be used to help refine computer simulations of nuclear explosions. Since late last year, the NIF estimated cost has ballooned from the original $1.2 billion to $3.3 billion or more, with poor management at the laboratory and the DOE being blamed. But although Congress didn't stint on the NIF funding for 2001, lawmakers did establish some conditions for the project to get that money that are intended to prod officials toward better management.

Conditions to be met

Of the $199 million, only $130 million is available to be spent immediately, according to the terms of the Energy and Water Appropriations bill, which includes money for NIF. But $69 million is only available after March 31 and after the administration certifies that six specific steps have been taken.

Before NIF can get that remaining money, the lawmakers require "a recommendation on an appropriate path forward for the project," a statement that "all established project and scientific milestones have been met on schedule and on cost," a statement that the project is on schedule and cost in the first two quarters of 2001, a study of requirements for and alternatives to a 192-beam facility, a statement that a control system has been developed for the project, and a five-year budget for the government's program for monitoring the health of the nuclear-weapons stockpile, of which the NIF project is a part.

In a report accompanying the bill, members of the House/Senate conference that resolved differences between the two chambers' version of the appropriations bill wrote that they "remain concerned about the department's proposed budget increase and schedule delay for the NIF." In particular, the Clinton administration "may have failed to examine adequately options for NIF that have fewer than the full 192 beams," the lawmakers wrote.

Not surprisingly, project officials chose to accentuate the positive. "We're very pleased that Congress has recommended additional funding for the National Ignition Facility and that the project should move forward," C. Bruce Tarter, director of the Livermore laboratory, said in a statement. "This action validates the extensive peer reviews of NIF that the DOE has spearheaded over this past year—all of which have been quite positive."

However, despite the bottom-line outcome for 2001, congressional debate about NIF suggests that the project could well become a political albatross unless lawmakers can be convinced that the management and budget problems have been brought under control. NIF does have its defenders on Capitol Hill. "It is true that the cost of this program has gone up. I believe it has gone up because of mistakes that were made on the part of the laboratory in deciding how much this was going to cost," said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ). "But what do you do about it? You can't just say because it is going to cost more than we thought that we are just going to give up on the whole project."

But others tore into NIF, using rhetoric signaling that the project will continue to receive close scrutiny by lawmakers. "This is a deeply troubled program," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) told colleagues in asking that construction money for NIF be cut from the bill. "I am deeply concerned that we will pour more and more money into NIF. NIF appears to be mostly a jobs program for nuclear-weapons scientists."

"The National Ignition Facility has become a shining example of how not to build large national facilities," Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) said. Reid recalled that officials from the DOE and the Livermore laboratory had solicited his support for NIF. "They assured me that NIF was absolutely vital to national security and that it would be brought in on time and within budget. Based on that, I came to bat for NIF and convinced many of my colleagues to support it," he said. "I regret it. In my estimation, the DOE lied to me," Reid said. "They sold me a bill of goods, and I am not happy about it."

About the Author

Vincent Kiernan | Washington Editor

Vincent Kiernan was Washington Editor for Laser Focus World.

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