Government officials still arguing over National Ignition Facility price tag

Oct. 1, 2000
The beleaguered National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA), which uses lasers to simulate nuclear reactions, has come under new criticism.

The beleaguered National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (Livermore, CA), which uses lasers to simulate nuclear reactions, has come under new criticismthis time from the General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress' watchdog agency. In a report issued in August, the GAO concludes that the NIF would cost at least $3.9 billionin contrast to the originally advertised price tag of $1.2 billionand suffers from "unresolved technical problems" that could delay the project and inflate its cost even more. Because lawmakers often pay close heed to the results of GAO investigations, the new report is likely to fuel skepticism on Capitol Hill over NIF's management, even though project officials argue that the information in the GAO report is outdated and inaccurate (see Laser Focus World, March 2000, p. 56).

The facility's ballooning cost was first disclosed late last year. Investigations by the University of California, which operates the laboratory, and the US Department of Energy (DOE), which pays its bills, have sharply criticized the project's management. According to the GAO report, the DOE and Livermore estimate that the NIF will cost $3.3 billion and will be completed in 2008, six years later than originally planned. But the GAO concluded that even that cost estimate was too low, because it omitted $600 million worth of research and development for the project. "Furthermore, since significant research-and-development activities to support NIF remain to be completed and technical uncertainties persist, the cost could grow even higher and completion could take even longer," the congressional investigators warned.

But Susan Houghton, a spokeswoman for the Livermore laboratory, says that it is misleading for the GAO to add the extra $600 million to the project's construction cost. The money would be used to develop targets for the lasers to focus upon. She says factoring those costs into the construction bill is like including the cost of gasoline in the price of a new car. "We continue to disagree with how the GAO is adding up numbers," Houghton said. "We continue to maintain that NIF remains just $1 billion over budget," she said.

Livermore officials also dispute the GAO's characterization of the technical hurdles facing the project. Houghton said the GAO report is based on a visit to the laboratory early in 2000 and thus reflects out-of-date information. "We continue to systematically resolve the technical issues," she said.

Optics issues

According to the GAO report, the most difficult technical issue is developing durable optical components for the lasers. "Unless the laboratory can fabricate lenses to withstand the enormous energy from the laser beams, the lenses will have to be replaced more often, making laser operation at high power levels much more expensive than planned," the report concludes (see photo).

The DOE concedes that this remains unresolved. In a letter included in the report, Madelyn R. Creedon, the department's deputy administrator for defense programs, says that the NIF has made "good progress" in addressing it and said that it won't affect the cost of building the facility. "The frequency at which the final-stage optics in the system need to be refurbished or replaced directly affects the cost of operations, not the cost of the construction project or the maximum power of the NIF," she wrote. "Nonetheless, development of longer-lived optics is progressing well to meet this challenge."

Overall, the GAO paints a bleak picture for the NIF, warning of "a billion-dollar overrun and multiyear schedule delay that could worsen because substantial research and development is still incomplete. Unfortunately, Congress cannot know with assurance just how much the NIF will cost, where in the DOE's budget the money will come from, what impact the facility will have on the overall nuclear-weapons program, or how long it will take to complete, even though 1 1/2 years have passed since the laboratory first questioned whether it could meet its most recent cost and schedule."

Budget issues

One unresolved question of particular interest to lawmakers is where the DOE will find extra funds for the NIF. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson has said that he will pay for the cost overruns with money from other nuclear-weapons programsa prospect that alarms some lawmakers. "I am especially concerned that NIF cost overruns may cut into funds available for other worthy scientific research projects," said Rep. Ralph M. Hall (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee.

Republicans, too, were quick to seize on the GAO's reportand to promise that they will keep close tabs on the project. "These findings are extremely disquieting," said Rep. Floyd Spence (R-SC), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "Not only does the GAO project that the program will cost nearly double the level initially anticipated, but this report raises legitimate questions about the ability of the DOE's science-based approach to adequately replace nuclear testing in maintaining a safe and effective US nuclear weapons stockpile."

About the Author

Vincent Kiernan | Washington Editor

Vincent Kiernan was Washington Editor for Laser Focus World.

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